Adventures in Ethics and Science

Another science fair idea

We’re back at the Monterey Bay Aquarium today. Shortly after our arrival, the kids are up to their elbow in touch-tank water. Then, the younger Free-Ride offspring gets critical.

“The decorator crabs here aren’t very decorated.”


“It’s true,” says the volunteer working the touch-tank. “These decorator crabs can’t smell any predators in their environment, so they figure they don’t need to try to hard.”

After a few moments with a deeply furrowed brow, the younger offspring asks, “How can I smell like a decorator crab predator and get the crabs to decorate themselves better?”

The volunteer laughs. I say, “Science fair project!”

Sure, we’d need at least one live decorator crab, and science fair projects with live animals are a big gray area as far as ethics and regulatory oversight. However, the Animal Welfare Act doesn’t (if I recall correctly) cover invertebrates.

Then there’s the small matter of generating predator smells. My better half is of the view that it shouldn’t be too hard, given our proximity to well-stocked sushi bars. “Start with octopus. I bet the crab gets decorated pretty fast.”

“Eventually, then, wouldn’t it be enough to put the scent of wasabi and pickled ginger in the water?” I ask.

Operant conditioning. Delicious operant conditioning.


  1. #1 beautyredefined
    February 22, 2009

    That does sound like delicious operant conditioning. Tasty!

  2. #2 jc
    February 22, 2009

    Crab torture! you’re evil. It would make a great science project. The fair kids go bonkers over animal responses to just about anything. One kid taught his fish to do things using balloons. He brought the house down. A 6th? grade girl looked at how dogs smell other animal scents (dogs, cats, rabbits, birds) on their toys. She rocked.

    p.s. I love the DC bug lab pics. Those kids had a happee.

  3. #3 J.
    August 18, 2009

    As an aquarium professional, I am highly interested in the subject of enrichment, which is often defined (as by the AZA–generated by mammal keepers) as providing choices with the goal of eliciting natural species-specific behaviors. In the case of a puffer fish this could be detrimentally stressful, as puffing is an emergency response. For a decorator crab, smelling predators and decorating is a normal state wild behavior, and as such there should be no ethical objections to that aspect of the project. More concern would be proper care–for a cold seawater invertebrate system good care includes many advanced factors, especially since this project would require significant time in an isolated system for them to lose the decorating behavior.

    Also, I think you are more on the lines of classical conditioning versus operant.

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