Do mussels have feelings?
Now we know: Answering the foodie questions you didn’t even know you had
The top results of a cursory search for “do mussels have feelings?” were populated with articles by vegans discussing the ethics of eating bivalves
While sitting over a bowl of steaming mussels and mopping up the mariniere sauce with bread, I struggled, and not for the first time, to fully equate the plump orange molluscs with being a live being. As I deposited yet another empty shiny black vessel in my pile of discarded shells, I found myself thinking – do mussels have feelings?
Make no mistake, mussels are most definitely alive. They’re part of the bivalve family which also includes oysters, cockles and scallops. To be a member of this clan (or should that be clam? arf arf), one needs to live in a shell and not have a head.
In her 2017 tome Immersion: The Science and Mystery of Freshwater Mussels, American vet Abbie Gascho Landis refers to mussels playfully as rocks with guts. “Despite their lively, useful filtration activities,” writes Gascho Landis, “mussels might appear purely passive, as if they are clueless victims of their environment, unable to move or react.”
The vet explains that mussels begin as very tiny larval versions of themselves, shell and all. She conducted a test with microscopic freshwater mussel larvae, adding saltwater to test for response, and therefore, life.
“Don’t blink,” writes Gascho Landis. “You’ll see them snap their halves together in their one grasp at life. They react fast, often clamping the shell of a neighbouring glochidium, squeezing with all they’ve got. All they’ve got is that chewing gum adductor muscle, pulling their teensy bivalves together. This is the reflex that gets them a ride on fish gills, a ticket to transform into their next lift stage.”
The top results of a cursory search for “do mussels have feelings?” were populated with articles by vegans discussing the ethics of eating bivalves, including mussels.
Back in 1991 Dr Jane A Smith, a lecturer in the department of biomedical science and biomedical ethics at the University of Birmingham, presented a paper entitled A Question of Pain In Invertebrates. She wrote that “invertebrates, it seems, exhibit nociceptive responses analogous to those shown by vertebrates. They can detect and respond to noxious stimuli... it is possible that invertebrates’ responses to noxious stimuli could be simple reflexes.” She points out that “because pain is a subjective experience, it is highly unlikely that any clear-cut, definitive criteria will ever be found to decide this question.”
Is a reflex more than a feeling? After taking a closer look at my bowl of moules mariniere, I haven’t quite figured out if bivalves have feelings. But I’ve certainly developed a newfound respect for the stoic hardiness of mussels.