After 8 Undersea Days, Cephalopod Week 2018 Draws To A Close

15:47 minutes

Cephalopod Week logoCephalopod Week 2018 has been a worldwide cephalo-bration of octopus, squid, cuttlefish, nautilus, and other undersea friends—but like a fast-jetting octopus, it goes by too quickly. As we wrap up Cephalopod Week this year, squid biologist Sarah McAnulty joins Ira to talk about her research into a symbiotic bacterial relationship in the Hawaiian bobtail squid, a lime-sized beastie that likes to bask on the Hawaiian sand. And Science Friday web producer Lauren Young joins the party to tell the story of a 19th-century self-taught French naturalist, Jeanne Villepreux-Power, who investigated the shell of the paper nautilus—and helped shape the design of early aquariums in the process.

Segment Guests

Sarah McAnulty

Sarah McAnulty is a squid biologist and the Executive Director of Skype A Scientist. She’s also a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut.

Lauren J. Young

Lauren J. Young was Science Friday’s digital producer. When she’s not shelving books as a library assistant, she’s adding to her impressive Pez dispenser collection.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. All good things must come to an end, and our annual cephalopod celebration is no exception. Today marks the end of cephalopod week, but it’s not over yet. We still going to hang on for another 20 minutes. Joining me now is Sarah McAnulty, squid biologist and PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. She’s also founder of Skype a Scientist. Welcome back.

SARAH MCANULTY: Hey, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I follow you on Twitter and all– you’re constantly showing off all your cephalopod friends, especially, you know, all those folks that you keep around you. You study the Hawaiian bobtail squid, correct?

SARAH MCANULTY: Yes, I do. They’re very easy to show off. They’re beautiful little animals.

IRA FLATOW: And you have this love for them. Like, you know, they’re your pets, but you’re studying them at the same time.

SARAH MCANULTY: Yeah, I mean when you have one of the cutest animals in the animal kingdom in my– I can say professional opinion. I just want to share them with everyone possible. So they’re pretty photogenic. So I love to take pictures of them and then share them with as many people as I can. Because I don’t think I really knew that bobtail squid existed when I was a little kid, so the more people I can share the love with the better.

IRA FLATOW: So how did you first learn about them?

SARAH MCANULTY: I actually didn’t learn about bobtail squid until I was a bit older in college. I was looking for studies on the immune system of squid. And I just went on PubMed and looked up some articles, and there was a ton of work done by Margaret McFall-Ngai and Spencer Nyholm on the immune cells of squid. And I found this was going to be the perfect model to study this sort of animal bacteria communication.

IRA FLATOW: And so you fell in love with the squid?

SARAH MCANULTY: Yeah. I’ve always been in love with squid, but these little guys are really, really good for the kind of questions I want to be answering in science.

IRA FLATOW: Tell me why.

SARAH MCANULTY: So these squid are really neat. They have a bioluminescent type of bacteria that lives on the underside of the squid in a specialized organ called the light organ. And now in this organ there’s just one type of bacteria. And that’s really great for the purpose of science, because instead of having like a mouse model for example that may have like 1,000 species of bacteria that live in the gut, if you have just one type of bacteria in a given organ, it’s really awesome. Because it’s kind of like just listening to two members of a conversation instead of trying to listen to like everybody talking all at the same time in a crowded room.

So you can really understand more simply the conversation that occurs between beneficial bacteria and an animal. And we can understand things about humans and other animals and how they relate to bacteria from a model like squid.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you know, it sounds like there’s some symbiotic stuff going here. And I think once having owned a 90 gallon reef tank in my living room– I’m sorry I never put some squid in there. I don’t think I could get them to stay alive.


IRA FLATOW: I remember looking at the coral and having to learn how the coral have a symbiotic relationship also. Is this sort of the same thing?

SARAH MCANULTY: It’s a similar thing. Yes, so the one thing about the coral– that’s with this organism called symbiodinium– they can create energy from sunlight. And then zooxanthellae, and the little animal that the coral is made up of, they’re also in this one-to-one sort of relationship.

The difference there is that I believe those are intracellular and then the bacteria that live in the squid are sort of in a pocket inside the squid. So they’re not inside the cells, they’re just sort of like– the same way that your gut is inside you, but it’s like also kind of outside you, because there’s a tube that goes directly through you. And then never really enters your tissues per se. It’s a similar situation in the squid.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, so do these bacteria actually feed the squid? Are they feeding them food? Is that how they live together?

SARAH MCANULTY: The squid feeds the bacteria, actually.


SARAH MCANULTY: This is a really cool and interesting thing, because one of the graduate students who is now a PhD, Julia Schwartzman, she is now at Harvard. She was working with Margaret McFall-Ngai and Ned Ruby. And they found that the hemocyte, so the immune cells of the squid, will go on mass into the light organ where all the bacteria live and basically sacrifice themselves, and feed the bacteria.

And this is a pretty wacky thing to think about, because normally you think of an immune cell as just being like an attack dog, like something that’s just trying to destroy any bacteria in their path. That’s what you probably learned in like fifth grade or whenever– whenever you first learn about immune cells. But these immune cells not only defend the squid but also feed these bacteria in the light organ when it’s beneficial to the squid. So that’s really cool. And they also feed them other nutrients in different times of the day. And then in return the bacteria give the squid light for camouflage.

IRA FLATOW: She had this glowing squid that’s–


IRA FLATOW: –feeding the bacteria. Yeah.


IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow, do you have– you’ve worked with octopus and cuttlefish. Do you have other favorite cephalopods that you like besides these squid?

SARAH MCANULTY: Yeah, so this squid is really good for kind of molecular biology host microbe stuff, but in terms of behavior, they’re not the most exciting squid. They’re pretty much just sitting around and burrowing in the sand, particularly during the day. But the other squid that I really, really like are these reef squid that live in the Caribbean, the Caribbean reef squid. And also there’s a similar species, the bigfin reef squid that lives around in the Pacific in Japan and Australia. And they’re really large and beautiful, and they’re very graceful when they swim. And I like those a lot.

And there’s also the giant Australian cuttlefish that are these like mammoth, brightly colored big, big cuttlefish. They have some really fun behaviors that I love to talk about. They’re great.

IRA FLATOW: Like what

SARAH MCANULTY: So I don’t know if I’ve thought of this before, but my favorite cephalopod story, the thing that I like to hook people with the most, is the mating behaviors of the giant Australian cuttlefish. And this it’s just like just a testament to how complicated the behavior of cephalopods can be. So during mating season, they all gather together either in one area of the reef. And there’s usually about eight to 10 males for every female cuttlefish. So these males really need to be good at attracting a mate. And while they do, the big males will basically battle they’ll wrestle each other.

And they’re sort of like large and billowy. It kind of looks like two duvets are like battling each other. They’re just like flopping all over the place. They’re usually like bright purple and blue and black. And so that’s happening while simultaneously there are smaller males that know that they don’t have a chance in fighting these bigger males. So they’ve come up with a totally new strategy for attracting a female. And so in the reefs you can tell the difference between the male and female squid, because the males are putting on sort of like a blue black pattern and the females have more of like a splotchy maroon and white pattern.

And the males have two extra arms that have hanging down below that you can tell the difference. So the little males will tuck their big side arms and then put on the color pattern of the females and then swim over to the female while the big males are battling each other and not paying attention. And then when he gets the females attention will really quick switch back, inform her that he’s a male.


And then really fast mate with her and then get out of there which is just like amazing. These cuttlefish are cross-dressing as a way of mating. It’s amazing. So that is clever, and I just think it’s so cool. So Roger Hamlin did some of this work. And he looked at the egg that was laid from that female that mated with this little cross-dressers sneaker male and found that more of [INAUDIBLE] her fertilized by the sneaker male than the big males, because the female cuttlefish will mate with maybe 10 males–


SARAH MCANULTY: –during this period and store the sperm from all of the different males. And then later when she goes to lay her eggs sort of like those in her Rolodex and is like OK who did I like the best and then choose that sperm to fertilize her eggs. And those little sneaky males do better than the big males which is remarkable and really cool.

IRA FLATOW: That is cool. I want to bring in another guest, Lauren Young, Science Friday’s web producer. She’s been helping to lead the cephalopod celebrations in our home office. Welcome back, Lauren.

LAUREN YOUNG: Hey Happy Cephalopod Week, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Yes, it’s coming– I bought the socks. I hope you saw my socks.

LAUREN YOUNG: Yeah, I saw that you were a sucker for octopus socks.

IRA FLATOW: Ah, that’s great.


I have three kind of them. You wrote about the argonaut octopus. Tell us about it. It’s an octopus, right?

LAUREN YOUNG: Yeah. So, OK. So this summer you might be strolling on a nice beach and come across a very beautiful very kind of delicate white shell in on sand. And so to me they kind of look like these cream colored cornucopias, or if you will, Smurf caps.


And these shells actually belong to the argonaut octopus. And so they are a true octopus. They eight arms, and two of them have these larger arms. And they have these very peculiar membraneous webs on them. And Aristotle– I have to tell you this– Aristotle once believed that they would stick their arms in the air and like catch the breeze in their webs and sail across the sea like a little sailboat, but there’s illustrations of it, and it’s pretty–

IRA FLATOW: Romantic.

LAUREN YOUNG: Yes, romantic and kinda silly. It’s great. But yeah, it is a true octopus.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, some people call it the paper nautilus, right? Because it looks just like a nautilus.

LAUREN YOUNG: Yeah. It’s kind of confusing. And that nickname is so unfortunate for this poor little octopus. So it’s not a nautilus. It’s actually a true octopus. And the nautilus is actually the only living cephalopod with an external shell. But the paper nautilus, the shell is not actually a real shell. It’s an eggcase. So only the females have them, and that’s where the paper nautilus gets its kind of its nickname. It’s really thin and very delicate. So–

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You’re up on our website at sciencefriday.com/cephalopod. You have beautiful– there was an underwater photographer–


IRA FLATOW: –taking pictures of this nautilus.

LAUREN YOUNG: Yeah, Julian Finn at the Museum Victoria. He is a diver, and he also studies them. And beautiful creatures, I wish I could see them in person.


LAUREN YOUNG: They’re really awesome.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you also tell the story of a French naturalist. Where does she come into this picture?

LAUREN YOUNG: Yeah so her name was Jeanne Villepreux-Power. She’s a French naturalist from the 19th century. There was this mystery about where did the shell come from. No one really understood the origin of the shell. And so at the time a lot of scientists believed that the octopus would steal the shell, very much like a hermit crab steals shells and lives in them. So she kind of thought the opposite that, you know, the argonaut, what if it actually makes the shell?

So she went out and basically made these aquariums in her house and also like these incredible cages on the Bay of Messina, which is a really calm bay in Italy. And she would set out these marine stations and watch these octopuses in the wild– well, natural of environment as you can for them.


So Yeah and she would kind of just observe them and watch their behaviors.

IRA FLATOW: She is called the mother of aquariums, right?


IRA FLATOW: Cause she did these things.

LAUREN YOUNG: Yeah. Exactly. It’s really interesting that title. She was given it by another scientist at the time. And she didn’t actually invent the aquariums, but she is one of the pioneers of that kind of this nascent boom of early aquariums in the mid-1800s. She really practiced techniques that you know we use today like renewing the water and feeding the animals.


LAUREN YOUNG: At the time before her, a lot of people were just kind of observing dead specimens in jars. So she was one of the first amongst like a lot of different scientists at the time who were building aquariums. Doing practices that people see today.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with Lauren Young, Science Friday’s web producer and Sarah McAnulty, the squid biologist about aquarium– or aquaria, I don’t know.


IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] Aquaria. Sarah, did you know about her?

SARAH MCANULTY: I did. She is such a great story of like women in science pioneering and getting out there. I just love– I love that story so much. I think cephalopod biology actually has a ton of women in science like from a long time ago, which is always heartening and nice to see.


IRA FLATOW: Do you have any tips for us, Sarah, about how to keep any of these cephalopods at home? I mean, can you build your own aquarium, and do this?

SARAH MCANULTY: You absolutely can. I would not recommend my little bobtail squid, because they’re nocturnal, so they’re not the most fun pets. But one thing that you have to mentally prepare yourself before taking on a cephalopod into your home, is knowing that their lifespan is very short. So if you want an animal for your kids to grow up with, the cephalopod is not the way to go. They’ll live somewhere between six months and a year. But if you can really master the like fish and corals– start small with sort of easier to handle organisms.

And then once you have a fully– become like fully cycled systems– so systems that have a full complement of bacteria in them that can handle kind of like the waste that these animals produce, then you can definitely give it a try. They’re really fun to have around. They’re engaging. And if you’re a good aquarist and you really can take care of them then it’s worth a shot.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I know from my own past experience. Lauren, this has all been part of Cephalopod Week, are you sorry to see end? What other kind of things–

LAUREN YOUNG: Yeah, so bummed.

IRA FLATOW: What are some other things that people did?

LAUREN YOUNG: If only we could– you know, we should be celebrating cephalopods all the time. They’re really great. So people– pardon my pun, people really got cracking this year with cephalopod fun stuff. And so there’s nothing like celebrating Cephalopod Week–

IRA FLATOW: I picked that pun up. I got it.

LAUREN YOUNG: Yeah, you got it? [LAUGHS]


LAUREN YOUNG: There’s nothing like celebrating Cephalopod Week with like people in person. And actually Sarah was at one of our events at New York. We did a really fun cephalopod movie night and a bunch of events across the nation. We also did a lot of fun things you know at Sci Fri. Our Johanna Mayer wrote a really great piece on the first major underwater film starring a mechanical octopus. We also have an activity where you can model the papillae of cuttlefish skin. And we played a bunch of games on Twitter around 800 people signed up for our text cephalopod of the day chain which was a lot of fun.

IRA FLATOW: Now I understand that you have a favorite cephalopod haiku, is that right?




IRA FLATOW: Regale it.

LAUREN YOUNG: Yeah so, we called out for haikus, and I swear this is not me, but Lauren on Twitter wrote Cephalopod Week, squids are cute, but I’m feeling a little naughty. And she showed a picture of a nautilus on it. It was pretty fantastic.


SARAH MCANULTY: I love that one. I retweeted that.

LAUREN YOUNG: Yeah, me too.

SARAH MCANULTY: It was great.

IRA FLATOW: So we still have time. People can still celebrate Cephalopod Week.

LAUREN YOUNG: Absolutely, all weekend. We’ll still be sharing stuff. And our partners or people– other organizations too, PBS Digital Studios, Popular Science, Smithsonian Earth– a lot of people are creating great content about cephalopods, sharing fun facts. It’s really, really great.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. I want to thank you and the rest of the Science Friday staff for all your efforts on Cephalopod Week. It’s been very cool.

LAUREN YOUNG: Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: We now just have 364 more days to wait.

LAUREN YOUNG: I know. Countdown begins today.


IRA FLATOW: I want to thank Lauren Young, Science Friday’s web producer. You can find her article– beautiful article on our website at sciencefriday.com/cephalopodweek. And Sarah McAnulty, squid biologist, PhD candidate in marine biology, University of Connecticut in Storrs, and founder of Skype A Scientist. I love your tweets. I’m going to keep following them. Thank you, Sarah, for joining us today.

SARAH MCANULTY: Yeah, any time.

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