On octopuses and oceans

By Anneli Salo (Own work  (Own photo)) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

What is it about octopuses that captures so many people’s interest and imagination? Their legs? Their eyes? Their brain? All the amazing things they do? We have so little understanding of the sheer diversity of creatures that live beneath the ocean’s waves, and their existence feels so foreign to us land-dwellers. But maybe it’s because when we witness the crafty and clever world of the octopus, we see another creature to whom we can better relate (in spite of all the legs), and we get “sucked in” by their amazing antics. (For example, watch here to see an octopus unscrew a jar–from the inside!) For an extended exploration of the fascinating biology and overall charm of the octopus, check out this story from National Geographic. (For a kid-friendly description, National Geographic Kids also provides this introduction to the species.)

I’m no expert on octopuses, or even mollusks in general, so why write about them now? Well, octopuses made a rather big splash in science headlines last week. Apparently, octopuses rely heavily on various chemical changes in part of their genetic information, the RNA molecules made from the DNA encoding their genes, that can change how the information in their DNA is processed and used in their bodies. This RNA editing phenomenon has been considered to be relatively rare in animals, but scientists are excited to learn about the extent to which it is used in octopuses, especially in the cells of their nervous system. One tantalizing hypothesis suggests that understanding the flexibility of the octopuses’ use of its genetic material could explain their seemingly intelligent actions, even in the absence of other genetic or neurologic features. For one really nice summary of study, check out this article by science writer Ed Yong in The Atlantic. (The original scientific report can be found here.) This new finding will likely spark additional investigations into both octopus behavior and the phenomenon of RNA editing in general, uniting researchers in different areas of biology in exploring this exciting new research topic from different angles and helping us better understand how genetic programming works in many species.

As soon as you spot one article on octopuses, it’s easy to start noticing others. For example, check out this video that crossed my path a few days later about the octopus Haliphron atlanticus, made by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. Is the octopus using the leftover tentacles from its meal as defense, or maybe to catch prey? This question is part of a broader study published by these researchers about biodiversity and food chains of ocean life off the coast of California. We know so little about octopuses and other residents of the deep that we can still only speculate on their interactions. For example, additional research published this month by another team of researchers at the Monterey Aquarium revealed that as many as 75% of the ocean creatures they found at all ocean depths studied may light themselves up from within, a phenomenon known as bioluminescence. (See here for a longer summary about this fascinating study.) While researchers have studied how bioluminescence works and how it may benefit organisms in hunting, defense, etc., our general lack of familiarity with ocean dwellers as a whole seems to have led us to underestimate the extent to which bioluminescence may be found in living things.

I’ll leave you with one last octopus video link, shared this week by National Geographic. The mesmerizing interaction between octopus and diver pulls us in and connects us to these creatures, the ambassadors of the sea. The more we learn about life in the vastness of our oceans, the more we are amazed by the secrets they reveal. Building a relationship of curiosity, wonderment, and care for the biodiversity that connects us all–including in the oceans that surround us–is an important part of understanding our own place on the planet.

2 thoughts on “On octopuses and oceans

  1. Pingback: Nature’s blues | Mulled Science

  2. Pingback: 2017: A year of “Mulled Science” | Mulled Science

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