You got your tarantula some new home décor but it as you place it inside, it snags your T and now it must be in pain, right? Take a breath and relax; pain is relative between species.
Do tarantulas feel pain? Yes, they do. All living organisms with brains and nervous systems can experience pain – it is in essence, a survival mechanism. However, that pain might feel different from the pain humans experience.
Although the pain suffered by tarantulas is most likely completely different from what we feel, the basis stays the same; something harmful happens and that information is shared with your brain which then tells you, hey, what’s going on here is not okay.
But how can we be sure what the tarantula is feeling is pain and not just instinct?
Let’s Define Pain
Like all other emotions, pain is a human sensation and labeling a creature’s response to stimuli as pain has caused a lot of contention.
So, even though humans and animals both react to powerful mechanical stimuli, saying tarantulas feel pain in a human sense is not biologically correct – it would be better to say they are reacting negatively to mechanical stimuli.
The reason why that distinction should be made is so that how different organisms experience and respond to negative stimuli can be based on anatomy and not instinct.
For example, your T will instinctively move away from negative stimuli but how do you know it’s because of a reaction to the stimuli or its pre-emptive instinct to move away from a threat?
However, repeating ‘reacting negatively to mechanical stimuli’ is a mouthful, so to all the purists out there who want to argue semantics, I’m sorry, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll stick with plain old pain.
Also, as tarantula owners, we do at times humanize our T’s, but since we’re getting scientific here, it’s best to leave the anthropomorphizing at the door so that we can focus on the facts.
Sometimes, I wish my tarantulas could talk and say ‘ouch’, but although they’re remarkable creatures, they’re not that clever – unfortunately.
Pain has a vital role to play in the body as it acts as an alarm, warning us of any extreme danger. If that is so for humans, why would that not be the case for tarantulas?
Of course, humans have delicate, soft and fleshy skin, while tarantulas have exoskeletons, but both species have nerves running underneath. Tarantulas also have hairs that act as an extension to their nervous system, which can make them ‘feel’ pain.
This does not go to say that tarantulas are so hardy that despite suffering from a fall, they will come out unscathed. In fact, in this article, you will see that Ts are actually fragile creatures and there are just some things that their tough exoskeletons cannot handle.
Considering the important role pain plays in survival, it is difficult to argue that tarantulas have survived as long as they have without the ability to feel pain – it would have put them at a disadvantage, one that would surely not have made them outlive dinosaurs.
But, of course, saying that tarantulas and other invertebrates don’t feel pain, makes it easier for us to spray them with insecticides or squish them with your shoes; humans tend to be more caring towards creatures they think can feel pain and experience emotions.
According to Greg Neely, an associate professor at Sydney University and pain researcher, different invertebrate animals can feel and evade any stimuli that we as humans perceive as painful.
“In non-humans, we call this sense ‘nociception’, the sense that detects potentially harmful stimuli like heat, cold, or physical injury, but for simplicity, we can refer to what insects experience as ‘pain’,” explained Neely.
On top of your tarantulas feeling pain, Neely says it is now known that injury can possibly lead to future hypersensitivity to non-painful stimuli – basically in the same way humans would experience such incidents.
Neely and his team damaged a nerve in one leg of a fruit fly and left it to heal completely. Afterward, they discovered that the fly’s other leg had become hypersensitive! How cool is that?
“After the animal is hurt once badly, they are hypersensitive and try to protect themselves for the rest of their lives,” said Neely.
This is proof that tarantulas have sensory neurons that will send information on the condition of body parts to their central nervous system – just like humans.
What happens afterward, however, is still a bit of a mystery but won’t it be highly presumptuous of us to think that since we are self-aware and experience suffering that it is not true of other forms of life?
How To Tell If A Tarantula Is In Pain?
Okay, you definitely won’t see your tarantula limping. In fact, in a biological review conducted by Eisemann et al. (1984), insects do not shield any injured body parts – they will continue with normal activities even after losing a limb.
To support their findings, Eisemann et al. (1984) listed the following examples:
- Even after an insect’s tarsus (furthest part of the leg) has been crushed, it will continue to apply the same amount of pressure on the substrate.
- A locust will keep on feeding even while being eaten by a mantis!
- Half-dissected tsetse flies will continue to fly to feed – if possible.
But much like humans reflexively pulling back their hand after touching a hotplate, tarantulas will display some behavior to indicate that something is wrong. At first, your T may retreat to its burrow or hide away hastily to ‘tend’ to its wounds.
Then, during the healing process, you may find your tarantula pacing and being aggressive, much like other injured animals would.
Now, do keep in mind that tarantulas do have regenerative abilities. Should it lose a leg, it will just redevelop during its next molt. The leg may not be as large the first time around, but after the next molting session, it will be larger and continue to rejuvenate to normal size.
That being said, this regenerative process does not seem to come without some sensation, especially if you take Professor Greg Neely’s findings mentioned earlier into account.
Further, there are instances when the regenerative abilities of your T, simply do not work—which can lead to injury and even death. Yikes! You can take a look at this article as to what may cause this regenerative failure so you can prevent your T from feeling pain (if you are “Team Ts feel pain”)
Argument Against Feeling Pain
Although it was already found in a 2003 study that insects do indeed feel negative stimuli or ‘pain’, there still are some skeptics. (We know that tarantulas are not insects but this study is still quite interesting)
According to Matan Shelomi, an entomologist, it would be evolutionarily harmful to insects to feel pain. Now, that is in high contrast to what other experts have been saying, but let’s hear him out.
Shelomi says since most insects have such short lifespans, with some adult stages only lasting a few hours, feeling pain would shorten the species’ time on earth.
In their brief lifetime, they have to survive to eat, find a mate and reproduce. Experiencing pain will make this very hard considering that the likely hood of them avoiding any harm is very low with all the predators and dangerous out there for insects; some of them very small.
Says Shelomi, “Imagine if you broke your leg or had a terrible stomachache or just had open-heart surgery. How likely are you to go out, hunt for food, find a mate and reproduce?
I doubt you would be in the mood for that. Most likely you would stay in bed and heal because anything else would be too painful.”
So, given this, Shelomi believes pain is only useful for animals with a long lifespan; those animals that can take their time to heal and then reproduce when healthy. But where does that then leave tarantulas or insects with longer lifespans?
The Bottom Line: Do Tarantulas Feel Pain?
Taking the evidence into consideration, it does look like tarantulas feel pain – even if not exactly the same way we as humans do.
The fact that arachnids have nervous systems that can make them see, hear, smell, taste is a big indication that they are also possible to experience negative stimuli.
If you’re still not convinced, wouldn’t treating even the smallest of insects as if they can feel pain promote respect towards living organisms – something that is inherently a good thing?
We need to protect this place that we and myriad of other creatures call home and to do that, each species has its role to play.