Tag Archives: octopus

Lobsters, octopuses and crabs recognized as “sentient” in the UK

Credit: Flickr.

Lobsters and other shellfish served in restaurants are often boiled alive — an excruciating process carried out because once the lobster is dead it releases a lot of toxic bacteria. Cooking the lobster alive therefore minimizes the chance of food poisoning. Besides, lobsters don’t have a brain and can’t feel pain, right?

Wrong. A massive review of over 300 previously published studies found there is strong evidence that at least some invertebrates are sentient. On the heels of these findings, the UK government officially updated an animal welfare law recognizing decapods and cephalopods — which include crabs, lobsters, shrimp, prawns, and crayfish, as well as octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish — as capable of “sentience”.

Sentience refers to “the capacity to have feelings, such as feelings of pain, pleasure, hunger, thirst, warmth, joy, comfort, and excitement.” Previously, the British animal welfare bill already recognized all animals with a backbone as sentient beings.

Sentience is not exactly the same as consciousness, but the two are closely related because feelings represent the most basic sense of “conscious”. For instance, studies show that lobsters become highly stressed during the catching, handling, and transport phases, arriving either very weak or dying at factories. Both decapods like lobsters and cephalopods like octopuses show they can not only feel pain but remember painful or threatening objects or situations and take steps to avoid them.

Although lobsters and other decapods don’t have a brain, at least not in the familiar human-like sense, they do have a complex nervous system that includes nociceptive receptors that signal pain and opioid receptors that respond to morphine.

These latest updates to UK legislation, however, will not affect any current practices in the fishing and restaurant industries — not yet at least. It is very likely that inhuman slaughtering and catching practices for these animals will be eventually banned. Some of the recommendations in the review for animal welfare protection policies in the future include banning the declawing of crabs and inhumane slaughtering methods like live boiling and dismemberment.

Banning these inhumane practices wouldn’t be a premiere — boiling crustaceans alive is illegal in countries like Switzerland and New Zealand.

“The amendment will also help remove a major inconsistency: octopuses and other cephalopods have been protected in science for years, but have not received any protection outside science until now. One way the UK can lead on animal welfare is by protecting these invertebrate animals that humans have often completely disregarded,” said Dr. Jonathan Birth, Associate Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science and lead author of the government-commissioned independent review.

“The Animal Welfare Sentience Bill provides a crucial assurance that animal wellbeing is rightly considered when developing new laws. The science is now clear that crustaceans and mollusks can feel pain and therefore it is only right they are covered by this vital piece of legislation,” said Animal Welfare Minister Lord Goldsmith.

The iconic ‘Dumbo’ octopus stars in the deepest-ever octopus sighting

The adorable cephalopod has been photographed on the bottom of the Indian Ocean in the Java Trench, at around 7,000 meters of depth.

Image credits amieson, A.J., Vecchione, (2020), Mar Biol.

This is roughly 2 kilometres deeper than any previous reliable sighting of a cephalopod, the family that includes octopus and squids. Given that we now know how deep these animals can live — seemingly very comfortably, too — the findings “increase the potential benthic (ocean floor) habitat available to cephalopods from 75 to 99% of the global seafloor”.

The deep end

The researchers who spotted the boneless animal say it’s a species of “Dumbo” octopus, so named due to its distinctive side fins. Due to their size and shape, they’re very reminiscent of an elephant’s ears, most notably to those of Disney’s 1940s’ animated elephant Dumbo.

Still, spotting the octopus at this depth was no mean feat. Lead author Dr Alan Jamieson from the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, Newcastle University is a pioneer of the use of “landers” for deep-sea exploration. These landers are crew-less craft, in essence large metal frames outfitted with various instruments that are dropped overboard and land on the seafloor. Once there, they observe their surroundings and record any passers-by.

And record they did. The lander picked up two octopuses, a 43-cm-long one at a depth of 5,760m and the other (35 cm) at 6,957m. Based on their physionomy, Dr. Jamieson and his co-author Michael Vecchione from the NOAA National Systematics Laboratory are confident that they belong to the Grimpoteuthis family, the group commonly known as the Dumbo octopuses.

God, it’s so cute.
Image credits amieson, A.J., Vecchione, (2020), Mar Biol.

Further down, the landers also spotted octopus fragments and eggs. The study provides the deepest-ever sightings of cephalopods. Previously, the deepest reliable sighting was a 50-year-old black-and-white photograph of one such animal taken at a depth of 5,145m.

For starters, it’s impressive that anything can live at such depths, where pressure is literally crushing.

“They’d have to do something clever inside their cells. If you imagine a cell is like a balloon — it’s going to want to collapse under pressure. So, it will need some smart biochemistry to make sure it retains that sphere,” Dr. Jamieson explained.

“All the adaptations you need to live at pressure are at the cellular level.”

Furthermore, it helps fill out our understanding of hoe octopuses live. The authors explain that the study shows that such animals can (potentially) live across 99% of the global seafloor, as the Java Trench is one of the deepest points on Earth.

The paper “First in situ observation of Cephalopoda at hadal depths (Octopoda: Opisthoteuthidae: Grimpoteuthis sp.)” has been published in the journal Marine Biology.

California two-spot octopus (O. bimaculoides). Credit: Thomas Kleindinst.

MDMA or ‘ecstasy’ makes octopuses more social, too

People who take MDMA, a common recreational drug which is also known as Molly or ecstasy, feel a sensation of elation and the urge to connect with others. Now, a fascinating new study suggests that this applies to octopuses too, despite the fact that we’re separated by 500 million years of evolution.

California two-spot octopus (O. bimaculoides). Credit: Thomas Kleindinst.

California two-spot octopus (O. bimaculoides). Credit: Thomas Kleindinst.

MDMA acts by increasing the activity of three neurotransmitters in the central nervous system: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. The emotional and pro-social effects of MDMA are likely caused directly or indirectly by the release of large amounts of serotonin, which influences mood (as well as other functions such as appetite and sleep). Serotonin also triggers the release of the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, which play important roles in love, trust, sexual arousal, and other social experiences.

Gul Dolen, an Assistant Professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, along with colleagues, studied the California two-spot octopus (Octopus bimaculoides), a species that is less challenging to work with in laboratory conditions. It’s also the only octopus to have its genome fully sequenced, allowing the researchers to make a gene-by-gene comparison with the human genome.

Researchers gave some octopuses a dose of MDMA and then studied their behavior. What they saw surprised them, considering the solitary nature of O. bimaculoides. Individuals under the influence of the drug spent more time with other octopuses, both male and female. The most striking behavior, however, was that they engaged in extensive ventral surface contact — in other words, they were very touchy-feely. The typically rare physical contact between the octopuses was non-violent and more exploratory in nature.

“Despite anatomical differences between octopus and human brain, we’ve shown that there are molecular similarities in the serotonin transporter gene,” Dolen said in a statement. “These molecular similarities are sufficient to enable MDMA to induce prosocial behaviors in octopuses.”

These findings show that O. bimaculoides share the same serotonin transporter gene with humans, which is known to serve as the principal binding site of MDMA. So it seems like this is an ancient neurotransmitter system shared across vertebrate and invertebrate species, which evolved hundreds of millions of years ago.

Of course, the serotonin system did not evolve to get creatures high but rather to enable complex social behaviors. For instance, the octopus may rely on this common pathway to behave socially during the mating season.

In the future, the researchers plan on sequencing the genomes of two other species of octopus, which are closely related to each other but differ in their behaviors. This way, they hope to gain more insight into the evolution of social behavior.

The findings appeared in the journal Current Biology.

Researchers develop octopus skin-inspired infrared camouflage

Octopods are great at camouflage — they even surpass the ability of chameleons. But how does their camouflage system work?

The secret is chromatophores – skin cells that contain different pigments that are wired to the nervous system and to a radial muscle structure that allows it to change in length and thus change the color saturation of the cell. Each chromatophore is linked to the nervous system by a neuron, making the color change happen in less than a second.

 

They are also able to mimic textures via projections on the skin named papillae and can mirror the environment through iridophores —- reflective cells found in the octopi’s skin tissue.

Scientists have long been trying to develop the perfect camouflage system. Even though they succeeded to make objects invisible to the naked human eye, infrared cameras, that allow us to see temperature variations in colors would still be able to detect them because the electrical components that made visual camouflage possible would heat up, demonstrating their bluff.

So, researchers tried to imitate Mother Nature’s design: the octopod’s chromatophores. By combining special electrodes, wrinkled membranes, and an infrared-reflective coating, Chengyi Xu and colleagues created a synthetic device that mimics cephalopod skin. When applying an electrical current, the membrane expands, reflecting more light of a given wavelength. When the electrical current stops flowing through it, the membrane contracts. You can see below how the membrane reacts to electrical stimuli.

Researchers created a squid-shaped version of the device and analyzed its ability to camouflage. Then, they used an infrared camera to measure the changes in the device’s temperature. Scientists report that altering the reflectance of the device so that its temperature changed by a mere 2°Celsius was sufficient to mask its existence from an infrared camera.

Who knows — maybe in the future we could buy octopus skin clothes and activate them when encountering our exes.

The mysterious deep-sea Dumbo octopus hatchlings look just like adults [with video]

When most creatures are sent into this world, they don’t have the capacity to take care of themselves. Their body is insufficiently developed, their mind is still a work in progress, and they certainly don’t have the ability to hunt. But the Dumbo octopus is different, researchers have learned. Dumbo octopus hatchlings are basically miniature versions of adults, emerging with a fully formed body, a complex nervous system, and the ability to navigate their surroundings.

The Dumbo octopus. Image via NOAA.

The Dumbo octopus is a strange animal. We don’t know that much about it, largely because it generally lives at depths of 3,000 to 4,000 meters (9,800 to 13,100 ft), with some living up to 7,000 meters (23,000 ft) below sea level — the deepest of any known octopus. The creature takes its name from Disney’s fictional elephant Dumbo, due to the prominent ear-like fins located above each eye, which look like Dumbo’s giant ears. But these prominent fins do more than just raise similarity with a fictional elephant: they propel the octopus through unique, flapping motions.

It’s not easy to study a creature that spends most of its time kilometers beneath the surface, so researchers were thrilled when they came across the first Dumbo eggs ever observed.

Tim Shank at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution first noticed one in 2005. As he was working with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to explore the Northwest Atlantic, he observed what appeared to be tan-colored golf balls attached to coral branches. They were too interesting to just pass by, so he collected a few.

“With each successive collection, it became apparent that this was some sort of an egg case,” Shank says. “The first few were open and empty, the next two contained a white gelatinous mass within, and the final collection yielded the specimen described in the paper.”

Most of them were cracked (the octopus had already hatched), but one was still intact. So he took it inside the lab, placed it in a bucket in a cold room that mimics its natural environment, and observed it.

The egg started to crack, and the tiny octopus peaked its head.

“Once the fins were observed while it was still in the bucket, it was clear that it was a ‘dumbo’ octopod,” says Elizabeth Shea at the Delaware Museum of Natural History.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNbzrl2RRcA

At first, it didn’t move much, but after a while, it started to swim around, in the video you can see above. Researchers were quite surprised to see just how well the octopus navigated its surroundings. Seemingly fully formed right from the start, the hatchling can see and chemically sense its environment, and an internal yolk sac also gives it a little time to successfully capture a first meal. However, it seems perfectly competent to already hunt on its own.

“The virtual exploration and 3D reconstruction of the internal anatomy of this deep-sea creature was particularly revealing,” says study co-author Alexander Ziegler from Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn in Germany. “I was impressed by the complexity of the central nervous system and the relative size of fins and the internal shell. However, for me as a zoologist, the most interesting aspect of our discovery remains the close interaction between the dumbo egg and the deep-sea coral host.”

Dumbos typically hover above the sea floor, where they look for worms, crustaceans, or other small creatures they can hunt. It’s intriguing that they hatch so well-formed, but what researchers are most interested in now is establishing the environmental relationship between the octopus and the corals which host its eggs.

“We knew that adults are predominantly benthopelagic [living and feeding near the seafloor, as well as in mid waters or nearer to the surface], that females lay eggs on the ocean bottom, and that octopod eggs come in a variety of sizes, colors, and textures,” Shea says. “Our work connects the dots between a particular egg, a particular coral, and a particular octopod.”

Shea et al.: “Dumbo octopod hatchling provides insight into early cirrate life cycle” http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(18)30034-4 , DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.01.032.

An example of the inflated membrane programmed to form stone shapes. Credit: J.H. Pikul et al., Science (2017).

Artificial camouflage skin mimics the octopus’ unparalleled morphing

Octopi and cuttlefish are masters of disguise. Within a fraction of a second, they can morph their tissue and seamlessly blend with their surroundings, becoming indistinguishable from a rock or coral, for example. Taking cues from nature, researchers at Cornell University have devised their own ‘camouflage skin’ which stretches and morphs in 3D. The skin can be programmed to take all sorts of shapes.

An example of the inflated membrane programmed to form stone shapes. Credit: J.H. Pikul et al., Science (2017).

An example of the inflated membrane programmed to form stone shapes. Credit: J.H. Pikul et al., Science (2017).

The secret to cephalopods’ unrivaled camouflage lies within 3D bumps on the surface of their skin called papillae. In one-fifth of a second, the papillae can rise or retract, swiftly and reversibly morphing the animal’s surface into various textures like those belonging to seaweed or coral. The primary reason why the soft-bodied mollusks evolved this ability is for defense. Their flexible body has no bones so they can escape into small cracks, rocks, crevices, and even into bottles and cans from the seafloor. They can also use jet propulsion to quickly move through the water and escape predators. At the end of the day, however, these animals invested the most resources into camouflage because it pays off better to stay inconspicuous rather than constantly evade predators.

octopus camouflage

Simply amazing! Credit: Giphy.

In the closeup video below you can get a glimpse of how the papillae are actuated.

Cornell engineers worked closely with cephalopod biologists to design a controllable soft octopus-inspired actuator, reporting in the journal Science. First, cephalopod biologist Roger Hanlon and colleagues thoroughly described the papillae, which are muscular hydrostats — biological structures that perform an action and consist only of muscle with no bony frame. The human tongue is another prime example of a muscular hydrostat.

“Lots of animals have papillae, but they can’t extend and retract them instantaneously as octopus and cuttlefish do,” says Hanlon, who is the leading expert on cephalopod dynamic camouflage. “These are soft-bodied molluscs without a shell; their primary defense is their morphing skin.”

“The degrees of freedom in the papillae system are really beautiful,” Hanlon said in a press release. “In the European cuttlefish, there are at least nine sets of papillae that are independently controlled by the brain. And each papilla goes from a flat, 2D surface through a continuum of shapes until it reaches its final shape, which can be conical or like trilobes or one of a dozen possible shapes. It depends on how the muscles in the hydrostat are arranged.”

After nailing down the structure, function, and biomechanics of the cephalopod papillae, Cornell engineers developed synthetic tissue groupings that can be programmed to extend and retract. In order to closely mimic cephalopods as much as possible, the artificial papillae were constructed from a fiber mesh embedded inside a silicone elastomer. An algorithm determines how the pattern is set in the mesh using a laser so the final 3D shape of the ‘skin’ reaches the desired configuration. The silicone is simply inflated to turn the skin into a 3D object like a rock or the Graptoveria amethorum plant, as researchers demonstrated.

“Theoretically, you could do this really, really quick — milliseconds,” says study coauthor James Pikul.

This is not the first attempt at artificial dynamic camouflage. In 2014, Chinese researchers developed a thin, flexible 4-layer material that autonomously that changes appearance to match surroundings.

The method allows soft, stretchable materials to morph from 2D to a desired 3D shape, with a wide range of applications. For instance, the material can be tuned to reflect light in its 2D form and absorb light when it morphs into a 3D shape, which can be very useful when you want to manipulate temperature. Dynamic camouflage is also appealing to the Army Research Office which funded this research.

Biologists just discovered an underwater octopus city — they call it Octlantis

Researchers were thrilled to discover the aquatic architecture, which is reminiscent of human cities. But in a city filled with cannibal cephalopods, life is not a walk in the park.

Gloomy octopus. Photo credits: Peter Godfrey-Smith.

The octopus has long been regarded as an intelligent yet solitary creature. Gloomy octopuses (octopus tetricus) especially, were thought to enjoy isolation. But a new finding throws all that away, as researchers discovered what can only be regarded as an octopus settlement.

With underwater GoPro cameras, they gathered 10 hours of video footage of the site, which lies in Jervis Bay just off the coastline of eastern Australia. The city measures 18 by 4 meters (59 by 13 feet) and lies 10 to 15 meters (33 to 49 feet) under the water. It comprises of 16 individuals who have constructed dens from sand and shells. Much like advanced vertebrates, they exhibit complex social behaviors. They congregate with each other, they communicate, they dwell, and sometimes they even evict each other from their respective dens. Previously, researchers believed the only social behavior exhibited by the species was mating, but this is now obviously not the case.

“At both sites there were features that we think may have made the congregation possible — namely several seafloor rock outcroppings dotting an otherwise flat and featureless area,” said Stephanie Chancellor, a Ph.D. student in biological sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an author on the paper.

“In addition to the rock outcroppings, octopuses who had been inhabiting the area had built up piles of shells left over from creatures they ate, most notably clams and scallops. These shell piles, or middens, were further sculpted to create dens, making these octopuses true environmental engineers.”

A sketch of the second gloomy octopus site in Jervis Bay. Photo credits: Scheel et al, 2017.

The second site she refers to is another octopus city, Octopolis, which was discovered back in 2009. However, when researchers found it, they thought it to be a freak occurrence. The theory was that Octopolis was created only due to an unidentifiable human object which formed a central point that the cephalopods surrounded with dens. But in this new site, there’s no such object. Without any external influence, the cephalopods built the city themselves. This was very surprising and leaves researchers wondering how common this behavior is. It’s also unclear how this fits in their greater behavioral pattern.

But this is not an octopus utopia. Although the animals lived very close to each other, they weren’t always friendly neighbors. Mating, signs of aggression, chasing, and other signaling behaviors were observed. This confrontational behavior not only expends a lot of energy but also poses a great injury risk. Whatever the benefits are, they are great enough to outweigh the downsides — which are significant.

“Animals were often pretty close to each other, often within arm’s reach,” Chancellor said.

“Some of the octopuses were seen evicting other animals from their dens. There were some apparent threat displays where an animal would stretch itself out lengthwise in an ‘upright’ posture and its mantle would darken. Often another animal observing this behavior would quickly swim away,” she said.

Octopus tetricus is hiding under a rock in Clovelly Pool, Sydney, NSW, Australia (not from this study). Image credits: Sylke Rohrlach.

Octopus tetricus adults typically have an arm span of 2 meters (6.6 ft). Their eyes are usually white, and the skin consists of many small pavement-like patches and large papillae which can be raised over the body to produce a spiked appearance, common when imitating seaweed. They can also change body color, which makes them even more efficient at this imitation. They feed at night, using their sharp beak to feed on crabs and mollusks.

Journal Reference: David Scheel, Stephanie Chancellor, Martin Hing, Matthew Lawrence, Stefan Linquist & Peter Godfrey-Smith. A second site occupied by Octopus tetricus at high densities, with notes on their ecology and behavior. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10236244.2017.1369851

octopus-land

Thought octopuses only live in water? Watch David Attenborough explain how the only land octopus hunts

octopus-land

Credit: Youtube / BBC Earth.

Octopuses are some of the most amazing creatures out there. They have three hearts, use tools, and they’re some of the most masterful camouflagers. Out of all octopus trivia, however, you most likely consider the fact that these animals live in water boring and not worth mentioning. But that’s not even entirely true. One particular species called Abdopus aculeatus is actually adapted to living on land and even walks using the hundreds of tiny sucklers that line its eight, venomous arms.

Abdopus aculeatus is an intertidal octopus described from the Philippines and common throughout Indonesia and northeastern Australia. This small species of octopus mainly forages for portunid and calappid crabs, sometimes crawling or swimming approximately 3–5 m to catch one. When tides are low, this octopus can become stranded in puddles. But that’s not much of a problem as A. aculeatus literally walks from puddle to puddle looking for a delicious crab morsel.

Ever resourceful, this amazing octopus’ behavior was caught on film by the BBC Earth crew which aired a brief documentary about it, with the one and only Sir David Attenborough narrating.

The best-fossilized octopus we’ve ever found gets recreated in 3D to understand their evolution

A 3D digital reconstruction of a full-body octopus fossil discovered in 1982 sheds new light on the evolution of cephalopods.

Image credits Isabelle Kruta et al.

Finding a high-quality fossilized cephalopod is really, really hard. While paleontologists find fossils of their hard body parts quite often, things like ammonites’ shells or belemnite guards, the problem is that most of a cephalopod’s body is made of soft tissue — which almost never fossilizes.

Findings are so rare that the most spectacular cephalopod body impression was found in France in 1982 and nothing since has come close to it. Uncovered by J. C. Fischer and B. Riou, it represents a 165 million-year-old fossilized octopus with eight arms they named Proteroctopus ribeti. Each such fossil offers a unique glimpse into the anatomy of ancient cephalopods, and this find was no different — in fact, it was unprecedentedly well-preserved, and the team managed to describe the animal’s suckers off the fossil.

But there are limits to how much information can be gleaned off of them. The animal was squished during fossilization, and the end product looked not dissimilar to a deflated football, which made it difficult to determine its anatomy or how where it fits into the tree of life.

The work of Isabelle Kruta and her team from the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris could finally bring this fossil back to live-like proportions — in the digital world. The researchers reconstructed the animal in 3D using a high-definition imaging technique known as synchrotron microtomography. Restored, Proteroctopus looks like it falls within a major octopus group called Octopodiformes (or Vampyropoda), which includes the common octopus. Actually, it looks a lot like deep-sea dwelling Octopodiformes, and also lacks an ink sac. But there are a few differences too. The ancient octopus has eight arms and a fin sticking out on either side of its body, and its suckers are obliquely offset from one another rather than occurring side by side as in many of today’s octopuses.

This striking similarity shows that octopuses were already widely diversified by about 164 million years ago

“[Characteristics] we thought were quite recent in the evolution of the group, such as the shape of some suckers, were already present in the Jurassic,” Kruta says.

It also shows that the animals haven’t changed much since then, a testament to how well they’ve adapted to ocean life.

The full paper “Proteroctopus ribeti in coleoid evolution” has been published in the journal Paleontology.

Male and Female Larger Pacific Striped Octopus wrapped in a beak-to-beak dance. Image: PLOS ONE

This oddball octopus mates with its mouth and is actually social

Octopuses are like aliens and there are few creatures weirder than these eight legged critters.  They survive freezing waters, perceive light through their skinare masters of camouflage and can do many other things, some still oblivious to science. One uncanny feature of octopuses is their mating behavior or social order. Most octopus species mate at a distance, with the male using its reproductive arm to reach the female’s mantle. They have to do this to avoid being cannibalized by the female. Either way, once the job is done, the male dies  while females only lives a little longer, just enough to lay the eggs. That’s the peak of both the octopus’ sex and social life. Besides a few instances, octopuses live their lives in isolation, alone in some shell or barren rock. However, there’s one octopus that seems to be totally different, even human-like: the Larger Pacific Striped Octopus.

Male and Female Larger Pacific Striped Octopus wrapped in a beak-to-beak dance. Image: PLOS ONE

Male and Female Larger Pacific Striped Octopus wrapped in a beak-to-beak dance. Image: PLOS ONE

If you think the name lacks character, it’s not the octopus’ fault. It was first discovered decades ago off the coast of Panama by Arcadio Rodaniche, but because at the time scientists didn’t believe it was distinct enough to be considered a new species the name stuck. When Rodaniche first studied the octopus he reported some weird behavior like the fact that the males and females actually stay and live together even after the mating is done. Now, many years later, these findings have been confirmed by a team of biologists from University of California, Berkeley.

After carefully studying multiple specimens of the Larger Pacific Striped Octopus, Rich Ross, a senior biologist at the California Academy of Sciences, found even more interesting tidbits about this peculiar species. Even for octopus standards.

Unlike the other 300 or so species of octopus, the Larger Pacific Striped Octopus actually seems to have at least a shade of social life. But first, let’s talk about mating. To copulate, the male and female join their beaks together, which actually sounds romantic. The researchers speculate this behavior has evolved so that the brooding female can mate while still guarding her eggs. Also, it also helps the male increase his chances of success since this way only one male can mate with the female. In most octopus species, the female mates with multiple males at a time.

Ross in his lab with on his research octopus.

Ross in his lab with on his research octopus. Despite the name, the Larger Pacific Striped Octopus is no bigger than a tennis ball.

While most octopuses die right after they finish laying the eggs, the Larger Pacific Striped Octopus females lives longer and can produce multiple batches. They even live to see their young hatched and take care of them for up to eight months. During this time, the male sticks around and shares the den with the female. The two share food beak to beak and mate every day. They also share chores, as researchers note both sexes regularly clean up their den of excess food or waste. Findings appeared in PLOS ONE.

“It’s the most amazing octopus that I’ve ever gotten to work with,” Ross said.

Oh, remember I mentioned earlier that octopus seem like alien? Well, some scientists agree. US and Japanese scientists just recently sequenced the first octopus genome and came to some startling findings. They sequenced the DNA of the California two-spot octopus, but the findings can be easily extended to other species. Some key findings: its genome is huge for its size; despite being an invertebrate, the octopus’ genome has a family of genes involved in setting up brain circuits in vertebrates;

Octopus genome finally unraveled, and this is a big deal

The mystery of the octopus genome has finally been solved, and this will allow researchers to answer some intriguing questions: how does it regenerate so well? How does it control its 8 flexible arms and over 1000 suckers? How do they camouflage and mimic the environment, and most importantly – how did a relative of the snail become so incredibly smart?

The Maldive octopus, image via Youtube.

Cephalopod intelligence is extremely important because it relies on an entirely different nervous systems to that of mammals. The cephalopod class of molluscs, particularly the Coleoidea subclass are highly intelligent invertebrates, but they’re… different from us. Scientists don’t really understand it that well, and the fact that most cephalopods are so elusive doesn’t help them – so they took the other way about it: they analyzed their DNA.

The findings, published today in Nature, reveal a vast, unexplored landscape full of novel genes and surprising gene arrangements, including some evolutionary aspects which are remarkably similar to those in humans. Among these, of special significance are a large group of familiar genes which are encountered in several mammal species, including humans, and which offer increased mental processing power. Known as protocadherin genes, they “were previously thought to be expanded only in vertebrates,” says Clifton Ragsdale, an associate professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago and a co-author of the new paper.

How and why they were able to develop such remarkable features will be a rich area of research, and biologists are excited to get on the case.

“For neurobiologists, it’s intriguing to understand how a completely distinct group has developed big, complex brains,” says Joshua Rosenthal of the University of Puerto Rico’s Institute of Neurobiology. “Now with this paper, we can better understand the molecular underpinnings.”

Also revealed through this study are genes that allow octopuses to taste through their suckers.  Researchers can also now better study the past of this rarely fossilized animal’s evolutionary history – a history which goes back 270 million years.

It was no easy feat, but unraveling the octopus genome will pave the way for a myriad of other discoveries, from neurobiology to evolution to engineering.

“This is such an exciting paper and a really significant step forward,” says Lindgren, who studies relationships among octopuses, which have evolved to inhabit all of the world’s oceans—from warm tidal shallows to the freezing Antarctic depths. For her and other cephalopod scientists, “having a whole genome is like suddenly getting a key to the biggest library in the world that previously you could only look into by peeking through partially blocked windows.

I for one, can’t wait.

Octopus is so cute that ‘Adorable’ might become its name

Among the best thing about being a biologist is you get to name things when you discover them. Now, a marine researcher in California will name one of the cutest invertebrates we’ve ever seen: so adorable, that it might actually be named ‘adorabilis’.

This cute flapjack octopus can survive at depths over 1000 feet.

An octopus is a cephalopod mollusc of the order Octopoda. It has two eyes and four pairs of arms and, like other cephalopods, it is bilaterally symmetric. An octopus has a hard beak, but no internal or external skeleton. In mythology, they have been portrayed as monsters, but the small creature discovered by Stephanie Bush, who works for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute studies can certainly not be called a monster.

“As someone that’s describing the species you get to pick what the specific name is. One of the thoughts I had was making it Opisthoteuthis adorabilis — because they’re really cute.”

Scientists have known this species exists since the 1990s, but we still don’t know much about it. The cephalopod generally grows to 7 inches long and it somehow manages to survive an extremely hostile environment, diving to depths between between 300 and 450 meters (984 to 1,476 feet). It also seems like they can’t survive in captivity. Last year the researchers at the MBARI gathered a number of the new octopuses. A few survived in captivity at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They were put on display but sadly, they only managed to survive for a few months. However, one not only survived, but also laid eggs which she has been hatching for a year, giving researchers hope.

Image: Square Space

More than meets the eye: Octopus can perceive light directly through its skin

Biologists have long suspected that cephalopods like the squid and cuttlefish have specialized proteins embedded in their skin, very similar to those found in the eye, which they can use to perceive light, and maybe even colour. Where previously attempts failed, a team at University of California at Santa Barbara now offers conclusive evidence that octopuses can ‘see’ with their skin. Namely, they can definitely perceive light characteristics like wavelengths, brightness and such, but not edges or contrast. So, you might as well add full body vision to the list of awesome octopus features: master of disguise, elegance in chaos, survival in sub-freezing Antarctic temperatures or special untangling switches. But hey, who’s counting anymore. As much as octopuses are weird, they’re just as fascinating!

Image: Square Space

Image: Square Space

Previously, in 2010, a team of researchers at the  Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. reported that cuttlefish produce opsins in their skin. These are light-sensitive proteins typically found in the eye’s retina, which sense the light then trigger a biochemical reaction that sends a signal to the nervous system. Of all places, however, finding these in the skin was bizarre.

Dr. Roger Hanlon from the lab in Woods Hole then teamed with Thomas W. Cronin, a visual ecologist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, for a closer look. They eventually discovered that in  the skin of cephalopods – be them cuttlefish, squids or octopus – there are chromatophores embedded in the tissue, surrounded by muscle and nerves. When the muscles contract, the densely packed pigments expand (there are around 96,000 chromatophores per square inch of skin).

Using a novel set of molecular probes, Hanlon and Hole found the cuttlefish and squid makes opsins in the chromatophores. In the same pigments, they also found specialized enzymes typically found in the eye. All these pointed to the idea that these animals could sense light with their skin, but upon the ultimate test this proved not to be the case. When light was flashed on skin samples, they saw no response. They found themselves in the midst of a dilemma. What was going on?

Fast forward to present day, Todd Oakley and Desmond Ramirez of UCSB finally cracked it. Like the squid and cutterfish, octopuses too produce opsins in their skin, but not in the chromatophores. Instead, these are made in some hairlike nerve endings in the skin. Samples from a California two-spot octopus were taken to the lab, then had light shone on. When light hit the tissue, the chromatophores expanded and changed colour, but in the dark the pigments relaxed and reverted to their original hue. This suggests light sensors are connected to the chromatophores.  So octopus can sense the light, even without any input from the eyes or brain. They also found  rhodopsin, usually produced in the eye, within the octopus skin. All this evidence seems to suggest that octopuses can see with their skin, or at least discern colours.

Close-up of octopus skin showing changes in colour. Image: DKFINDOUT

Close-up of octopus skin showing changes in colour. Image: DKFINDOUT

It’s possible that this helps the octopus blend so well with its environment. Sure, it uses its eyes to discern what the surroundings look like, but it might be more efficient and effective at the same time to have the pigments and light-sensing proteins embedded in the skin. Ultimately, this sort of information triggers a neurotransmitter that “sets in motion a cascade of events that culminate in the addition of phosphate groups to a family of unique proteins called reflectins. This process allows the proteins to condense, driving the animal’s color-changing process.”

“Octopus skin doesn’t sense light in the same amount of detail as the animal does when it uses its eyes and brain,” lead author Desmond Ramirez of the University of California at Santa Barbara, said in a press release. “But it can sense an increase or change in light. Its skin is not detecting contrast and edge, but rather brightness.” The findings were reported in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

The team subjected the octopus skin to a variety of colours. The best response was with blue light, perhaps because the marine environment of the octopus is often blue-hued, which supports the above hypothesis.

Co-author Todd Oakley said, “We’ve discovered new components of this really complex behavior of octopus camouflage. It looks like the existing cellular mechanism for light detection in octopus eyes, which has been around for quite some time, has been co-opted for light sensing in the animal’s skin.”

Humans too can sense light with the skin. Previous research found that specialized cells and proteins inside the human skin react to ultraviolet light triggering tanning – a protective response meant to prevent skin damage. This is quite a bit different from the octopus, however.

“I’m very happy that they’ve succeeded,” said Dr. Hanlon for the NY Times, regarding the studies by Dr. Oakley and Mr. Ramirez. “And a little bit envious.” Hanlon will likely try again to see if he did something wrong the first time.

octopus arms

The seemingly chaotic, but elegant movement of the octopus: how it pulls it off

Despite lacking a rigid skeleton, octopuses have a remarkable coordinated locomotion. Using high-speed cameras, a group at the  Hebrew University of Jerusalem found the octopus achieves this by precisely and independently moving one or more of its eight legs to crawl its body, even when its facing a different direction. Moreover, there is no discernible rhythm or pattern to this undulating leg movement, making the octopus unique in this respect. It’s controlled chaos, and only the octopus itself completely knows how it pulls all this off.

One leg at a time

octopus arms

Image: Softpedia

“Octopuses use unique locomotion strategies that are different from those found in other animals,” researcher  Binyamin Hochner said in a recent release. “This is most likely due to their soft molluscan body that led to the evolution of ‘strange’ morphology, enabling efficient locomotion control without a rigid skeleton.”

Hochner and colleague  Guy Levy investigated what makes the octopus so efficient and agile. Analyzing the animal frame by frame, the two found that by shortening or lengthening its arms, the octopus crawled about. That’s not much of a secret, but what’s important is that each arm pushes the animal in only one direction, and this is independent of the direction the body is facing. Having arms with literally a mind of their own, does help a lot in this situation.

“So the octopus only has to decide which arm to use for the pushing – it doesn’t need to decide which direction this arm will push,” explained Dr Levy.

“[It has] found a very simple solution to a potentially complicated problem – it just has to pick which arm to recruit.”

This is likely a consequence of its evolutionary history, being forced to adapt quickly because its lost shell.

“During evolution, octopuses lost their heavy protective shells and became more maneuverable on the one hand, but also more vulnerable on the other hand,” explained Guy Levy, co-author of the study which appeared in Current Biology. “Their locomotory abilities evolved to be much faster than those of typical molluscs, probably to compensate for the lack of shell.”

Next, the researchers plan on revealing the octopuses’ neural circuits that allow it to use its arms in such a way. Since its arms are completely flexible with no joints, this insight might prove extremely valuable to engineers who might want to design octopus-like robots. Such bots might be useful in search-rescue operations. Speaking of the octopuses’ arms, have you ever wondered how it never gets tangled? The same team, Levy and Hochner, found that the octopus uses a chemical mechanism to attach its sticky arms to surfaces. This peculiar mechanism has a sort of on-off switch, so when the animals need to stick together and cling, like when mating for instance, the mechanism is activated, but otherwise its off so its arms never stitch to one another and become tangled. To make it even more interesting, some species are master camouflagers, or can withstand freezing temperatures in the Antarctic despite their blue blood. For sure, octopuses are among the most intriguing animals out there, and I have a feeling we’re only beginning to scratch the surface.

Antarctic octopuses survive in cold waters by holding higher concentrations of blue blood proteins. Image: National Geographic

How Antarctic octopuses survive in freezing waters

Octopus species that live in ice-cold Antarctic waters employ an unique strategy to transport oxygen to its tissue and survive, according to German researchers. The study suggests the octopuses’ specialized pigments, analogous to hemoglobin in vertebrates, are in higher concentration in the Antarctic region than in warmer waters. This would help to explain why octopuses are more adapted to climate change and warming waters.

Antarctic octopuses survive in cold waters by holding higher concentrations of blue blood proteins. Image: National Geographic

Antarctic octopuses survive in cold waters by holding higher concentrations of blue blood proteins. Image: National Geographic

Despite the inhospitable temperatures, the Antarctic waters host a wide variety of marine fauna. That’s mostly because the waters already contain diffused oxygen which helps compensate for the lower oxygen transport resulting from more viscous blood and lower tissue diffusion. This is why Antarctic icefish, for instance, don’t need  hemoglobin at all – the iron-rich protein that cells use to bind and ferry oxygen through the circulatory system from heart to lungs to tissues and back again. They’re the only vertebrates that don’t use hemoglobin. The adaptive measures employed by  blue-blooded octopods to sustain oxygen supply in the cold are less understood, however.

Michael Oellermann from Alfred-Wegener-Institute, Germany, and colleagues studied the  Antarctic octopus Pareledone charcoti, as well as two other warm water species: the South-east Australian Octopus pallidus and the Mediterranean Eledone moschata. Octopods have not one, but three hearts, and instead of hemoglobin use a blue blood pigment called haemocyanin. The researchers found Pareledone charcoti had 40% haemocyanins than the other warm water species. The researchers say that these high blood pigment concentrations may be compensating for the haemocyanin’s poor ability to release oxygen to tissues while in cold environments, and could help to ensure sufficient oxygen supply. Findings appeared in Frontiers in Zoology.

“This is important because it highlights a very different response compared to Antarctic fish to the cold conditions in the Southern Ocean. The results also imply that due to improved oxygen supply by haemocyanin at higher temperatures, this octopod may be physiologically better equipped than Antarctic fishes to cope with global warming,” Oellermann said.

For instance, the octopuses – including the cold hearted Pareledone charcoti – were found to shuttle  haemocyanin much better at temperatures of 10 degrees Celsius than at zero degrees.  At 10°C the Antarctic octopod’s haemocyanin had the potential to release far more oxygen (on average 76.7%) than the warm-water octopods Octopus pallidus (33.0%) and Eledone moschata (29.8%). The Antarctic Peninsula is currently experiencing a warming trend from which  Pareledone charcoti might benefit, seeing how it’s already well adapted.

This is the first study providing clear evidence that the octopods’ blue blood pigment, haemocyanin, undergoes functional changes to improve the supply of oxygen to tissue at sub-zero temperatures. It might be why octopods remain so populous across a wide spectrum of ecological niches.

“I wanted to take a picture of an octopus… but the octopus took pictures of me”

How the tables have turned! While documenting the experiments conducted on campus, Benjamin Savard, a digital media producer at Middlebury College, wanted to take some underwater pictures of an octopus. But the octopus had other plans. It grabbed the camera and turned it on Savard, who posted the photos and GIF of the entire sequence on Reddit.

Nice photography skills, octopus! All image credits: Benjamin Savard, via Reddit.

 

“I was just trying to brainstorm different ideas of how to show off the kind of unique research that’s going on here and in ways that would be engaging,” Savard said. “I think the octopus’s timing was great. I was just in the right place at the right time.”

[Also Read: The Blanket Octopus: Using stolen venomous tentacles as weapons]

Savard told ABC that he was working on a short film about the scientific studies going on at the school. While documenting a project in the neuroscience department, Savard asked to take some underwater pictures of the octopus.

“I set up a GoPro to take a bunch of still images every second, put it in the tank, and what you see is the result!” Savard told ABC. “The octopus picked up the camera, played with it for a while, turned it back at me for a quick second, and left it alone.”

The octopus then tried to eat the camera, which didn’t surprise the students working on the experiment; but it didn’t find it tasty enough. It did take the time to snap a few pictures though, which came as a pleasant surprise.

Ironically, researchers were trying to figure out if these particular octopuses (Octopus bimaculoides) can learn how to open boxes more quickly.

“I’ll probably use the same GoPro and the same setup once we get a better handle on where we want to go with this video,” Savard said.

So, can we now say this octopus is the animal kingdom’s best photographer?

octopus tentacle

Why octupus arms never get entangled

octopus tentacle

Photo: c4dcafe.com

Roboticists and mechanical engineers hold octopuses to great respect and admiration because of their many skills, like great water propulsion, camouflage and independent limbs. Each octopus tentacle is equipped with numerous suckers that allows it to easily cling to most surfaces, no matter how smooth they may be. Whether the octopus needs to attach itself to a surface or run away quickly, its arms are always there to help, but what’s startling about all this is that the arms have a mind of their own: the brain doesn’t know where its arms are since there aren’t any nerve endings that communicate this information. With all this in mind, how in the world does an octopus manage not to get its arms stuck together in the first place?

These ‘shoelaces’ never tie together

Guy Levy, a neuroscientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, along with colleagues decided to investigate this intriguing phenomenon and devised a series of experiments to find the answer. Mostly, the researchers threw amputated octopus arms (an amputated octopus limb is still lively an hour after it was cut from the body) in batches around water basins. When two amputated arms came close to each other, the arms were unable to grasp each other despite being separated from the body.

The researchers initially thought the octopus arms manage to avoid each other through an electrical mechanism, however the amputated arm immediately clanged to some other skinned  amputated arm. This means that there’s something in or on the octopus skin that prevents its arms from coming together.

In another experiment, the researchers proved that the mechanism wasn’t texture either, after amputated arms couldn’t grab “reconstructed skin” that had been broken down to its constituent molecules and embedded in a gel. The only possible explanation that remains is a chemical mechanism.

“Everybody knew the lack of knowledge in octopus arms, but nobody wanted to investigate this,” says Guy Levy, a neuroscientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a co-author of the study. “Now we know that they have a built-in mechanism that prevents them from grabbing octopus skin.”

Sticky fingers

This chemical mechanism is a lot more subtle that anyone might have thought. For instance, the octopus has an off-switch that blocks the molecule  that normally causes the octopus arms to repel any other surface lined with octopus skin. This is how the animals manage to ‘hug’ and grasp one another. Otherwise, there couldn’t have been any mating. Still, there is much the researchers don’t know.

“We do not know which molecules are involved,” Levy says, “but we do know that molecules in the skin are sensed in the suckers and this inhibits the attachment behavior.”

Future efforts will concentrate on identifying the molecule or group of molecules that cause the arms’ suckers to avert octopus skin, as well assessing whether other  species of octopuses and cephalopods use the same mechanism. If they can find out how the octopus does this, Levy and robotician colleagues might be able to create some very interesting devices and robots. For instance, Levy is already working with a soft-robotics group called  STIFF-FLOP with whom he wants to create special surgical tools that preferentially and automatically avoid grasping certain objects.

“We are aiming at building a surgical soft-manipulator that might be able to scroll inside the human body while avoiding interactions between arms and parts of the human environment that aren’t involved in its tasks — like intestinal walls.”

The work appeared in the journal Current Biology.

Camouflage robot

Squishy robot camouflages itself effortlessly and blends in [VIDEO]

Camouflage robot

After UAVs inspired by hawks, robotic stability control spun from leaping lizards, wall climbing derived from geckos or the swimming artificial jellyfish made from rat cells,  in yet another remarkable feat of robotics which draws inspiration from nature scientists at Harvard University  have created a robot which mixes the blending capabilities of a squid with the locomotion mechanics of a sea creature.

“We began with the fundamental science question of, ‘Can we make a soft-bodied robot in a very primitive way?’ ” says George Whitesides of Harvard, co-author of the new study in Science this week.

The robot employs a dynamic coloring system, based on micro-channels into which dye is being pumped. These color layers used for the camouflage were first created using molds from 3D printers. Silicone is then poured into the molds to create these micro-channels, topped with another layer of silicone. In all, it takes 30 seconds for the robot to fill with color and another 30 seconds for it to drain – a full minute to completely blend into its surroundings or, oppositely, stand out.

“When we began working on soft robots, we were inspired by soft organisms, including octopi and squid,” says post-doctoral fellow Stephen Morin.

“One of the fascinating characteristics of these animals is their ability to control their appearance, and that inspired us to take this idea further and explore dynamic coloration. I think the important thing we’ve shown in this paper is that even when using simple systems – in this case we have simple, open-ended micro-channels – you can achieve a great deal in terms of your ability to camouflage an object, or to display where an object is.”

Applications for the robot, according to the researchers, include surgical simulation, planning, and training. In medical training today, most practice is made on real tissue, however a disposable artificial tissue which can mold and change color  according to the organ or tissue it needs to simulate might aid in efforts. Also, when filled with florescent dye, the robot becomes distinctly visible acting as a visual marker for search crews following a disaster. The same micro-channels are pumped in or out with air to allow for locomotion, much similar to how a starfish moves in the ocean.

Also, the squishy robot’s camouflage capabilities aren’t limited to visible spectrum. It can change its temperature and thus become invisible to infrared as well, or again stand out for infrared scanners. Or one could hide an object in the visible spectrum and illuminate it in infrared.

“What we hope is that this work can inspire other researchers to think about these problems and approach them from different angles,” Morin says.

“There are many biologists who are studying animal behavior as it relates to camouflage, and they use different models to do that. We think something like this might enable them to explore new questions, and that will be valuable.”

via Popular Mechanics

Mimic octopus impersonating a flatfish. (c) Rich Ross.

The fish that mimics the mimicking octopus

Mimic octopus impersonating a flatfish. (c) Rich Ross.

Mimic octopus impersonating a flatfish. (c) Rich Ross.

Off the coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia, dwells the Thaumoctopus mimicus commonly refered to as the mimic octopus, a remarkable animal capable of changing its shape and size to take the form of a jellyfish, a lion fish or even a crab or shrimp, among many other, for both protection against predators and as a shrewd disguise for hunting pray easier. A group of researchers, have now observed in the same waters, however, a peculiar jawfish that mimics the mimicking octopus – the master has finally been deluded, himself.

Godehard Kopp was diving and filming in waters preferred by the mimic octopus, when suddenly he observed a jawfish swimming in a perfect synchronized timing with the octopus, posing as an extra tentacle.  The German researcher immediately sent the footage to scientists at California Academy of Sciences for an expertize. It was unanimously agreed that this kind of behavior has never been observed before.

“It’s a pretty unique observation of mimicry — most of the time, a mimicking animal doesn’t actually follow the model it is mimicking,” Luiz Rocha of California Academy of Sciences told LiveScience. “But the mimicry wouldn’t work otherwise for this jawfish.”

With brown-and-white markings similar to ones on the octopus it was following, the black-marble jawfish is believed to have first evolved its coloration, before realizing it can be used as an excellent cover when coupled with a mimic octopus. Check out this incredible jawfish in action as it swims in perfect tandem with the octopus in the video right below.

“Those jawfish that did gain this advantage survived more often and got more offspring, so this behavior spread throughout the population,” Rocha explained.

“Unfortunately, reefs in the Coral Triangle area of southeast Asia are rapidly declining mostly due to harmful human activities. We may lose species involved in unique interactions like this even before we get to know them.”

 

Octomom gives birth to thousands of octopus sons – all caught on tape

Giving birth is definitely not something you see everyday, but an octopus giving birth – that’s something you may never see. However, thanks to the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, you get a chance to see just that: a species of Caribbean Octopus vulgaris giving birth.

They took the octopus in captivity, and just a few days after that, she surprised everybody by laying eggs; and three weeks after the eggs were layed, guess what happened ? A swarm of baby octopi (or paralarvae, as they are called), no larger than 2 milimeters long (0.04 inches) came out.

O. vulgaris hatchlings hatching from Richard Ross on Vimeo.

However, the story takes a sad turning here. Baby octopi are extremely hard to keep alive in captivity, even though they have been fed tiny shrimps and plankton. However, many of them are doing just fine until now, and hopes are still up. For the mother however, there’s a whole different story. This species of octopus stops eating after she lays the thousand of eggs and dies soon after the hatch; in this case, she died after two weeks.