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US government considers protecting octopuses used in research

Image of an octopus against a blue backdrop

While cephalopods have captured the imagination of marine biologists, science fiction writers, and curious individuals, it’s only recently that the public has become significantly interested in learning more about these animals. Part of their appeal has come from recent studies revealing the intelligence behind some of their sophisticated behaviors.

Now, feeding into this growing recognition, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced feedback for proposed guidelines that would, if passed, give various protections to cephalopods studied within a laboratory setting.

This announcement results from years of studies on cephalopod pain sensation, intelligence, and adaptation, combined with letters to US Congress members about the humane treatment of cephalopods.

Should these guidelines be enacted, they would redefine the meaning of “animal” in laboratory research regulations and give invertebrates various protections for the first time in US history. This protection would cover all cephalopod species, including octopus, cuttlefish, and squid. If approved, the US would also join a growing list of countries with ethical guidelines for cephalopod research, including New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada, Norway, and Switzerland.

Growing public concern about octopuses

With their unfurling tentacles and mesmerizing color changes, it’s easy to be fascinated by octopuses and cuttlefish. Many cephalopod behaviors are hard not to anthropomorphize, as they’re relatable and familiar to viewers. This may be why hundreds of books and thousands of scientific papers have been dedicated to further understanding these animals.

From the 2010s till now, a series of trendy cephalopod-themed books have hit the shelves, including The Soul of an Octopus; Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness; Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid; Giant Squid; Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate, to name a few. These books cover everything from personal interactions with cephalopods to exploring different aspects of their remarkable biology, intelligence, and consciousness.

In 2020, the popularity of octopuses skyrocketed thanks to the Oscar award-winning Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher, in which naturalist Craig Foster follows and interacts with an octopus in his own watery backyard in South Africa for over a year. Thanks to the film, viewers worldwide watched face-to-face interactions with a curiously playful octopus, watching her grow and adapt to her surroundings.

According to a 2021 Harvard Gazette article: “For many, it was likely the perfect pandemic-era antidote: a feel-good, otherworldly escape from a horrific year.” Following the film’s resounding success, others have continued to tell stories about octopuses, likely contributing to public support for their protection.

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