It would seem an excruciating end for millions of crustaceans, plucked from the sea, bound, impaled, torn apart limb by limb and finally boiled alive.

We freely do things to shellfish that we would never be allowed to do to any living thing that has a spine because of the commonly held notion that they can't feel a thing.

Now, that belief is being challenged.

In an address this week to Behaviour 2013 the world's biggest gathering of animal behaviour scientists, a researcher presented strong evidence that crustaceans do, in fact, greatly mind their odyssey to the dinner plate.

Robert Elwood of Queen's University in Belfast, derived that conclusion from experiments he and fellow researcher Barry Magee performed in 2012 and published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

The idea is that when crabs are offered two dark shelters -- but only one that will electrocute them -- they will learn to choose the non-shocking home.

If crabs relied only on nocireceptors -- basically an involuntary twitch that fires off in the face of potentially damaging stimuli -- they would not actually learn to avoid the shocking shelter.

Researchers concluded that such behaviour is "consistent with key criteria for pain experience and are broadly similar to those from vertebrate studies."

Another experiment saw hermit crabs making motivational trade-offs to avoid pain -- passing on, for example, their preferred abode when they were laced with minor shocks. Instead, they readily accepted the offer of a new home.

“Assessing pain is difficult, even within humans,” Elwood told the Newcastle conference, adding there is a “clear, long-term motivational change [in these experiments] that is entirely consistent with the idea of pain”.

The findings run contrary to earlier research suggesting lobsters and the like don't feel a thing. Rather, they twitch and squirm based purely on reflex.

In a 2005 study, Norwegian scientists concluded that simple nervous systems and tiny brains prevent everything from lobsters down to the humble earthworm from feeling the hurt.

Indeed, Wenche Farstad, who chaired the panel that reported to the government, said fisherman need not shy away from driving a hook into a live worm.

"It seems to be only reflex curling when put on the hook. They might sense something but it is not painful and does not compromise their well-being," he told the Guardian at the time. "The common earthworm has a very simple nervous system. It can be cut in two and continue with its business."

But animal rights activists were quick to comment on Elwood's experiments, suggesting that invertebrates should be afforded the same basic protections that their back-boned cousins receive.

While the issue of whether mice feel pain remains inconclusive, under the law, they are given the benefit of the doubt, Robert Hubrecht of the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare told Nature.

“We’re behaving in an illogical way at the moment,” he said, adding, "This is somewhere science has to lead.”

Related on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Strongest Animal

    The rhinoceros beetle (pictured) can push around 850 times its weight.

  • Largest Invertebrate (Land)

    The coconut crab weighs about 6.6 pounds and its legs can span up to two and a half feet Liz Hall from the Melbourne Aquarium inspects Coconut Crab as he takes possesion of a coconut in Melbourne, 19 December 2006. They Coconut crab (also known as the Robber Crab) are the largest living crab in the world and can climb coconut trees to harvest coconuts which they can break with their huge nippers and have been gruesomely know to feed on injured or unconcious people in the bush. (William West, AFP / Getty Images)

  • The giant squid is the world's largest invertebrate, and the largest ever measured was 59 feet long. Giant squids also have the largest eyes of any animal, each one about the size of a human head.

  • Smallest Mammal

    The etruscan shrew is the smallest mammal (by weight) in the world. The smallest animal by skull size is the bumblebee bat.

  • Most Venomous Animal

    The sea wasp jellyfish (pictured) has enough venom to kill 60 adult humans. Photo: <a href="" target="_hplink">Guido Gautsch/Flickr</a>

  • Longest Migration

    Arctic terns migrate about 11,000 miles to the Antarctic each year...and then come all the way back! An Arctic Tern dives down to protect its nest on June 24, 2011 on Inner Farne, England. (Dan Kitwood, Getty Images)

  • Loudest Animal

    Blue whales' low-frequency pulses can be heard over 500 miles way. At 188 decibels, these sounds are louder than a jet engine. In this picture taken on March 26, 2009, shows a blue whale swimming in the deep waters off the southern Sri Lankan town of Mirissa. (Ishara S. Kodikara, AFP / Getty Images)

  • World's Most Extreme Animals

    North African ostriches run up to 45 miles an hour, making them the fastest land bird. They are also the biggest, weighing up to 345 pounds. An african ostrich eats at the Addo National Elephant Park, north of Port Elizabeth, on June 24, 2010. South Africa is hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup. (Patrick Hertzog, AFP / Getty Images)

  • Fastest Bird

    Peregrine falcons dive toward their prey at over 200 mph. A young male Peregrine Falcon eats meat taken from the protective glove of Taronga Zoo bird trainer Erin Stone (unseen) following a short flying lesson in Sydney on December 9, 2009. (Greg Wood, AFP / Getty Images)

  • Fastest Fish

    Sailfish can swim at speeds of up to 68 mph, although experts disagree as to just which species of sailfish is the fastest. Sailfish jumping out of the water on January 16, 2006 in the Florida Keys, Florida. (Ronald C. Modra, Sports Imagery / Getty Images)

  • Fastest Mammal

    Cheetahs can run at speeds up to 70 mph. Majani, a 2-year-old male African cheetah, exhibits lighting speed Friday, March 19, 2004 while chasing a mechanical rabbit at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park as part of the Park's environmental enrichment program. (Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo / AP)

  • Longest Lifespan

    Three giant tortoises are estimated to have lived over 175 years, with one estimated at a whopping 255 years. Image: Harriet, who died in 2006, was thought to be the third longest-lived tortoise on record. <a href="" target="_hplink">Cory Doctorow/Creative Commons</a>

  • World's Most Extreme Animals

    African elephants are the heaviest and second tallest land animals. Large males can exceed 13,000 pounds and are 12 feet tall at the shoulder. This photo made on February 10, 2011 shows an elephant in Tsavo west national park, some 350 kilometres southeast of Nairobi. (Tony Karumba, AFP / Getty Images)