Celebrating The Weird, Wonderful World Of Cephalopods
Every year, Cephalopod Week reminds us of the fascinating and weird world of these sea creatures. And in this segment, recorded live at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science Auditorium, two cephalopod scientists share new research about our squishy sea-faring neighbors, how climate change is affecting squids and octopuses, and why they love working with them.
Ira Flatow talked to Dr. Lynne Fieber PhD., professor of marine biology and ecology who has studied the nervous systems of all types marine invertebrates including cephalopod and sea slugs, and Dr. Andrea Durant Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Grosell Environmental Physiology and Toxicology Lab, who studies how tiny glass squid live in a rapidly-changing ocean.
Lynne Fieber is a professor of marine biology and ecology in the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science at the University of Miami in Miami, Florida.
Andrea Durant is a Postdoctoral fellow in the Grosell Environmental Physiology and Toxicology Lab in the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science at the University of Miami in Miami, Florida.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow joining you from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science in Miami, Florida.
My guests are two undersea experts here to help us celebrate Cephalopod Week, our yearly celebration of all things octopus, squid, and cuttlefish. And let me introduce them. My first guest is Dr. Lynne Fieber, professor of marine biology and ecology here at the university. She has studied the nervous system of all types of marine invertebrates, including sea slugs and our favorite, cephalopods. Welcome to Science Friday.
LYNNE FIEBER: Thank you, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Also with me is Dr. Andrea Durant, postdoctoral fellow in the Grosell Environmental Physiology and Toxicology Lab, who is currently studying how tiny glass squid are faring in a rapidly-changing ocean. Welcome to Science Friday.
ANDREA DURANT: Thank you for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Lynne, you’ve worked with cephalopods and other mollusks for many years. How do you conduct research with the animals? I mean, what are you trying to uncover with your work?
LYNNE FIEBER: Well, Ira, the nervous system of all animals is basically the same from squid and octopus up to humans but also down to snails and very other, more simple forms of life. And so if you want to understand how the nervous system operates on an elemental level, on a basic level like the level of cells or even the level of molecules, working in simple marine organisms is actually a very good way of approaching these ideas.
And so if you wanted to know how learning happens or if you wanted to know what a memory is– if you could hold it in your hand, what is it? Working in a simple animal where you can actually have just a few cells, a few nerve cells that are called neurons, responsible for a behavior, then that’s an advantage. It makes it easier for you to understand what causes behavior, what causes learning.
And so what I do is, I take the elemental way in which nerve cells communicate. And that’s electricity. And I listen to nerve cells talking to one another in the brains of marine animals.
And I do this with some sort of sophisticated recording equipment. But basically, in a dark room, I just listen to the brain talking to itself. And it’s a tremendous amount of fun.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. And in fact, I remember when Eric Kandel won the Nobel Prize for working with–
LYNNE FIEBER: Absolutely.
IRA FLATOW: –he actually recorded single cells? It’s possible to do that? You can listen to one cell?
LYNNE FIEBER: You can listen to one cell.
IRA FLATOW: How do you do that? Do you have a probe that’s tiny enough?
LYNNE FIEBER: Yes, you have a little glass electrode that’s filled with seawater. And you poke it into the cell. And then you have some sophisticated recording equipment– very sensitive.
And if you want, you can look at it visually. You can look at squiggles on your oscilloscope. Or you can translate it into music and listen to it.
IRA FLATOW: No.
LYNNE FIEBER: So– honestly.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, the songs of the cells of the cephalopods. I think we’ve got something here. Now Andrea, your research doesn’t focus so much on neurobiology, right, but on the physiology of a small cephalopod called the glass squid? Tell us, what is a glass squid? And what do you do with it?
ANDREA DURANT: Yes, a glass squid– they’re actually quite abundant in the pelagic and deep sea. You would hear them as cockatoo squid as well. And they actually look a lot like jellies. So I don’t think a lot of people realize they’re looking at squid when they see them.
These are really, really cool animals. They’re really abundant. And what I’m really interested in is, they use a really unique strategy for buoyancy.
And that’s very different than the shallow water squids that you’re commonly probably used to seeing. Octopods or octopuses use a very different strategy as well. They crawl and swim on the bottom.
Shallow water squids are actively swimming and use jet propulsion, like many cephalopod species. And it’s an elaborate funnel locking mechanism. And it’s really, really interesting.
But these squids are fascinating in that they do things very differently. And they hold onto a waste product and basically create a fluid that is just a little bit less dense than seawater. And that accounts for their body weight and gives them lift.
And so what that’s known as is neutral buoyancy. And they basically are the same density of seawater. And that really is an advantage in the deep sea. Because they can use less energy dedicated to swimming and such.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. If you’re a scuba diver, you know all about–
ANDREA DURANT: Exactly, yeah.
IRA FLATOW: So they’re really old-time scuba divers is what they’re doing.
ANDREA DURANT: Absolutely.
IRA FLATOW: And how did you get interested in this? Were you always working with them?
ANDREA DURANT: Yeah, so one of my advisors said I would make everything about ammonia. And this is true. And it seems to have followed me to the Rosenstiel School.
The bread and butter of what I do is really looking at how animals use this waste product, how they excrete it. And there’s a lot of peculiar ways that animals use ammonia. And this is a common waste product. Humans excrete it as urea. So your urine is very high in levels of urea.
So most aquatic animals will flush ammonia out of their gills or gill-like structures, or in the urine, or in the feces. And these squid decide to hold onto it in really high levels that would kill probably most cells, and organs, and animals in general. And they do this in a specialized chamber that they possess that is not seen in many squid families. And yeah, so I’m really–
IRA FLATOW: Fascinating.
ANDREA DURANT: –yeah.
IRA FLATOW: I can see why you’re interested in these.
ANDREA DURANT: Yes, yeah.
IRA FLATOW: No, I mean, it’s fascinating.
ANDREA DURANT: I will say that it’s a strategy about half of squid families use. And yeah, so these are really interesting in that they really use the specialized chamber for buoyancy instead of air.
IRA FLATOW: That’s cool.
ANDREA DURANT: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: That’s very cool. I know, Lynne, I know that cephalopods are a kind of mollusk. But you work on the sea slug. Is there a connection, a difference?
LYNNE FIEBER: Oh, yes. So I work on a type of marine snail that’s called the California sea hare. And it’s sometimes called a slug. It is a marine animal. And it is uniquely suited for studies of learning and memory.
Because even though it only has a few thousand nerve cells in its brain– which is really not very many. You have 86 billion nerve cells in your brains. And cephalopods have half a billion nerve cells in their brain.
So if you have an action or a procedure that you’ve taught this animal, there are only a few nerve cells involved. And so that makes it a lot easier to track down exactly what the change is in those nerve cells when the animal learns, or when it ages, or something like that. And so that’s the animal that I work on.
IRA FLATOW: So you can apply that to the other cephalopods, the kinds that we’re talking about?
LYNNE FIEBER: Absolutely, absolutely. The general premise that we all work on is that we try to understand a biological concept in a simple organism first. We call that a model. And once we’ve nailed it down, once we know what that learning is, then we test out our hypothesis on a more complex animal, whereas a sea hare can be had for about $20 after we rear it here at the Rosenstiel School. And squids and octopus for research are extremely hard to come by.
They are intelligent animals. We don’t want to mess with them, number one. They are capable of such complex learning.
IRA FLATOW: Give me an example of that.
LYNNE FIEBER: So, well, one of the most astounding things, I think, when you think about an octopus’s capabilities for learning– how to hunt and how to interact with this environment– is that it knows them as soon as it hatches out, right? I mean, they hatch out as little miniatures of the adults. And they only live for a year. So they have an awful lot to accomplish in that year.
They have to hunt, and explore their environment, and find mates, and breed, and then die. And so in an experimental sense– in the laboratory, for example– you might teach an octopus to not attack a new stimulus in its environment. That can be done. You can teach the octopus to not react. Its normal tendency would be to immediately attack a new stimulus in its environment.
IRA FLATOW: Something in its tank or–
LYNNE FIEBER: That’s right. And by “attack,” I mean go after it, handle it, try to see if it’s edible, of course. You always want to know that, if it’s edible, especially if it’s something new.
IRA FLATOW: A lot of us like that.
LYNNE FIEBER: Right, absolutely. Of course, if it’s a threat, you want to be proactive, right? You want to be the master of your domain. And you want to actually address that threat head on.
So you can teach the octopus to not do that. And it isn’t easy for the octopus to restrain itself from that normal impulse. And you do this by either giving a reward or a punishment.
And then you can test out the concept that you have brought to that animal model from an earlier animal model with just a few thousand nerve cells, and test it out, and find out now if you’ve got a nerve net with thousands, and tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of neurons trying to communicate with one another to enable that octopus to not act on its instinct and attack that new stimulus. Then you can learn more about that process.
And of course, these things are conserved right on up the family tree in primates like ourselves and all other animals as well. So this is the beauty of animal models from the marine realm particularly. Because you’ve got so much potential there.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s an interesting story. I didn’t realize how long it would take to do that. I didn’t realize that an octopus lives a year. It has a lot to do in that one year.
LYNNE FIEBER: Yes, and what I like to tell students is that if octopus lived for a dozen years or 80 years like humans, they’d take over the world. They absolutely would.
There’d be no stopping them, obviously. If they had that much time to consolidate their knowledge, they’d be unstoppable. If I could, one other thing which is just fascinating to me is that the cephalopods and all invertebrates that we’ve been discussing so far, these are animals that don’t have a spinal cord.
And so they have a brain that’s a little bit different structure from vertebrates like us, and dogs, and cats, and whales, and other fish. And cephalopods have such sophisticated capabilities for learning and for exploiting their environment, interacting with it. We have begun to think that when it comes to cephalopods, they have almost what we consider to be a parallel evolution for the way their brain works and actual consciousness. And we didn’t used to think this.
We used to think that all invertebrates were just the precursors of the vertebrates. They were just various models that evolution came up with before the real event– you know, primates and that sort of thing. But now we’ve come to think of the sophisticated invertebrates like cephalopods as actually having almost a parallel evolution to their way of dealing with the world. And that’s an extremely exciting concept to have two chances– invertebrates and vertebrates– to figure out how to reach an intelligence in everyday life.
IRA FLATOW: And maybe take over the world if they were– I see this made-for-TV script going on right now. Invasion of the octopuses, OK. Andrea, I know your research subject, the extremely tiny glass squid– and I can’t stress this really enough. They’re really tiny, right? Does this make it hard to work with them in the lab if they’re that small?
ANDREA DURANT: Great question. I think that with my background from dissecting mosquitoes and daphnia– which are tiny little crustaceans– and from my perspective, no, it’s actually a breath of fresh air.
IRA FLATOW: They’re pretty big.
ANDREA DURANT: They’re ginormous. And I can dissect them with the naked eye. But from a mechanistic viewpoint, we have no idea how exactly these animals produce and retain this much ammonia and how they don’t die in the process of retaining this ammonia. And this can be really applied to all the species in the deep sea that utilize this strategy, which is many of them. It seems to be a parallel strategy that arose for buoyancy that really is great for mitigating energy and other things.
IRA FLATOW: Do you have to be like a surgeon with tiny little tools?
ANDREA DURANT: Yes, we have micro tools that we use. Everything is under beneath the microscope. So really teasing apart the different organs and such is a task.
But it’s an interesting one. But yeah, I feel like a mini surgeon. I usually joke that I could just perform any surgeries after these. So yeah.
IRA FLATOW: We sort of have a doctor in the house.
ANDREA DURANT: Yeah, exactly, yeah, if you don’t have a spine.
IRA FLATOW: I’m not even going to go there.
Let me take a moment to remind our listeners this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Let’s talk about the ocean itself and how, Andrea– I’ll ask you also, Lynne– changes in the ocean chemistry and temperature might affect these animals.
ANDREA DURANT: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: And I’m talking global warming, climate change, things like that.
ANDREA DURANT: Absolutely. It seems, to the contrary, cephalopod abundances– at least squid– are booming right now. This is thought to be due to a variety of reasons. I think from overfishing of a lot of the predator species that would normally eat these squid, they’re really thriving in a warming and warmer ocean.
Species that were never found year round in the Arctic are being sampled there year round. So we know a lot from historical records how their abundances are changing. And there’s now residents in northern climates that were never there.
IRA FLATOW: Do we know why or suspect why?
ANDREA DURANT: Yes, I think that they can respond biologically very easily to changing ocean conditions, even in an individual’s lifetime.
IRA FLATOW: So when they live eight to 12 years—
ANDREA DURANT: They just need a day or two to adjust to– so salinity, temperature, hypoxia, so decreasing dissolved oxygen in the water. Ocean acidification does not really seem to–
IRA FLATOW: Really?
ANDREA DURANT: –affect– yeah. So there’s not a lot of studies. But in terms of metabolism, they do just fine. So from that perspective right now, they’re actually extremely abundant.
IRA FLATOW: The other cephalopods, too, or just the octopus?
ANDREA DURANT: My knowledge is restricted to squids. So I can’t speak to– and I will say that coastal species are going to experience more exacerbated changes. And those are shown to have some effects.
But pelagic squid right now are doing quite well. I think their biggest concern or biggest threat is deep sea exploration, so a lot of mining and for oils, minerals, gas– the risk of spills with the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico– and how it affects, in my case, deep sea animals such as these squid.
That seems to be the most imminent threat. And we don’t really know a lot, if anything, about the biology of these squids, let alone how they’re going to respond to these changing conditions. So really, that’s where I’m starting is just to figure out how these animals work and then apply some of these climate change scenarios to–
IRA FLATOW: So we’re all just doing a big climate experiment here in the ocean.
ANDREA DURANT: Absolutely.
IRA FLATOW: Lynne, do you have any insight into what the future might be?
LYNNE FIEBER: I think, just to add to what Andrea said, I think that the threats to coastal octopuses is overfishing. Many countries have absolutely no regulations about how much they can collect. And octopuses are a very important keystone species in a lot of reef environments, coastal environments. You take out the octopuses and the lobster– two things that people love to eat when they’re on vacation, for example.
And suddenly, you have an explosion of things like urchins that might have, in great numbers when they are allowed to really bloom, have negative effects on coastal environments. Because they’re usually kept in check by animals like that. And so that’s, I think, the main threat that we’ve got in terms of the coastal species of cephalopods is that they’re being overfished.
IRA FLATOW: Interesting. We’ll be right back after this short break. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow joining you from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science in Miami, Florida.
Let’s see if we can get some audience questions. So I want to have people get ready to line up and get ready to ask questions. Here comes the mic. It’s going to be coming down. OK, go ahead, sir. Let’s see if that’s working.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, hi, good evening. It’s interesting you mentioned how intelligent octopuses are. Because I know they can solve puzzles.
And they’ve even recognized people. And being so intelligent, I normally thought intelligence led to longevity and a long-term life. But why hasn’t that translated into a long life for an octopus when they’re so smart but they’re limited to only one or two years of living?
IRA FLATOW: Good question.
LYNNE FIEBER: It is a good question. So the simple answer is that octopuses, they have programmed self-destruction that is hormonal. And when they’re about 10 or 11 months old, their hormones that are not ordinarily coursing through their bloodstream become active. And they literally kill themselves with these hormones.
They self-destruct. And the only way to prevent them from activating this kill switch is to remove part of their brains called the optic glands, where the hormones are produced. And if you do that, the animal will retreat from sexual maturity and can live another year.
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
LYNNE FIEBER: Yeah, it’s just how they’re built.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, so they’re not living eight to 12 years yet, obviously. Yes, ma’am?
AUDIENCE: So the first question– so it’s very small. How you monitor the sea hares, is it invasive? Or is it like an ECG method?
LYNNE FIEBER: No, it’s a really good question. I’m glad you asked it. Because we may as well be truthful. I take their brains out. I take their brains.
I anesthetize them. And I dissect them with teeny tools and take out the brains. And then I break apart the nerve cells so that I get down to the individual neurons. And then I poke them with my glass electrode.
AUDIENCE: OK, that’s just my own morbid curiosity.
IRA FLATOW: All right, let me– I need to follow up on that question. Because I used to know a very well-known marine biologist. And he was a hematologist in North Carolina.
And he worked at Duke. And a trawler would go out all the time and scoop up all these fish, bring them back so he could get the blood and study the blood. And he’d have a terrific bouillabaisse dinner–
LYNNE FIEBER: Oh, yeah.
IRA FLATOW: –that night. Any similarity here to when you–
LYNNE FIEBER: We used to have a policy in the aplysia facility where we were growing these animals where new people had to, as an initiation rite, had to taste sea hare sushi. And it’s awful. They use pigments from their food and other compounds from their food as a chemical defense. They put it into the flesh, the skin, to deter predators. And that’s what you’re eating when you sample sea hare sashimi. It’s not tasty.
IRA FLATOW: Every year when we do Cephalopod Week, and we always will get a call from a listener about calamari. We try to get or tiptoe around that issue. But everybody still wants to think of calamari when they talk about– you had a second part to that question?
AUDIENCE: So you said when you take away the self-destruction, they only live in an additional year. So why is it only an additional year?
LYNNE FIEBER: So basically, the cells of the body, the organs, they’re just not built to last. They’re built to last that one year. They live fast and die young.
IRA FLATOW: Is that true of squid?
ANDREA DURANT: Yeah, I will say that pelagic squid are some of the most metabolically active animals. And they burn through a lot of energy.
LYNNE FIEBER: They burn fast.
ANDREA DURANT: A lot of– yeah, yeah.
IRA FLATOW: But what is the evolutionary advantage to that if you’re going to live fast and die young? You’re not going to be spreading your genes that much.
ANDREA DURANT: But they produce a lot of offspring.
LYNNE FIEBER: Especially squid– my goodness, yes.
IRA FLATOW: How many offspring do squid–
ANDREA DURANT: Oh, hundreds per clutch.
IRA FLATOW: And how many clutches do we–
ANDREA DURANT: I don’t know, actually.
LYNNE FIEBER: Yearly, half a dozen– oh, yeah, something like that– yeah, at least, minimum.
IRA FLATOW: So how many of those individual offspring actually survive and don’t get eaten by–
ANDREA DURANT: Great question. Probably very few of them compared to the average that you would see–
IRA FLATOW: So they help feed the rest of the–
ANDREA DURANT: Yeah, the larvae are planktonic. And they basically just drift in the open water column, so great food for a lot of other animals that are in the water column.
IRA FLATOW: The web of life.
ANDREA DURANT: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Wasn’t that a movie? Yeah. Yes.
AUDIENCE: So this is a stupid question. But–
LYNNE FIEBER: No stupid questions.
AUDIENCE: Oh. So for people like me who will eat anything– any meat, any– but I won’t eat cephalopods. Is there a word for us?
LYNNE FIEBER: I think we should invent one. Do you have a suggestion?
AUDIENCE: A cephalopodian? I don’t know.
LYNNE FIEBER: A cephalopodian. That’s a good one. I like it.
IRA FLATOW: OK, go.
AUDIENCE: Good evening. Thank you for coming tonight. I’ve read that octopuses have about 33,000 genes, about 10,000 more than humans. What are they doing with those extra 1/3 genes for their advantage?
LYNNE FIEBER: This is a tremendous question. We’ve been studying this in my lab, too. They’ve got a tremendous number of rough drafts in their genome, genes that can do a job.
But they don’t have just two alleles. They have numerous, many, many opportunities for that gene to be expressed with small changes, small differences in the protein sequence that’s coded for and that sort of thing. And for an animal that has a 500-million-year history on this Earth, it’s probably not a bad idea to have spares.
And that’s my perception on it. I’m not a hardcore molecular biologist. But that’s my perception. They’ve got a lot of stuff to continue to play with over historical time to improve their species.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, interesting. Yes?
AUDIENCE: I saw this video a while ago. It was like some study or test. It was on some sea creature. I forget what it was. But there are these two doors. One opened immediately. And one opened 15 minutes later.
And the study was to see if it could have judgment and understand time. And they put a normal piece of food behind the one that opened immediately and a more desirable one behind the one that opened later. And since you’re talking about an octopus being able to recognize people, and itself, and other octopi, my question is, how complex is an octopus’s sense of judgment?
LYNNE FIEBER: It’s a wonderful question. And it is– what you’ve described could be an octopus experiment. The octopus would excel at that particular task. It’s called operant conditioning, delayed gratification.
So you pass up an immediate reward for the promise of a better reward later. And even the sea hares can learn that. It’s a really essential capability in the brains of animals.
IRA FLATOW: That’s the marshmallow test in people, isn’t it? You give kids a marshmallow. And you give them an option. You can have the marshmallow now. Or you can wait and get something better later.
LYNNE FIEBER: Like a s’more?
IRA FLATOW: OK.
AUDIENCE: Or like five of them.
IRA FLATOW: Five of them. Yeah, five of them and whether they will actually wait or not and make a judgment about that. So the octopuses could do that test.
LYNNE FIEBER: Yeah, better than human children, who probably would take the one marshmallow, right? Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Some of them– some of them. Speaking of human children–
AUDIENCE: So I have a question. How do octopuses change color?
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, how do they do that?
LYNNE FIEBER: OK, so they have skin that’s very reactive and that contains little color sacs distributed throughout the skin and lots of little muscles around every color sac that either can contract it or expand it. And when it’s expanded, that color sac is seen on the skin. And so that’s one of the ways that they change color.
And they can produce very complex color patterns like the floor. The floor here isn’t blue or gray. It’s a lot of different colors, right? The octopus or the squid could reproduce this plaid with their skin by use of this color sac layer that’s controlled by muscles and then some reflective layers underneath that so that they can shimmer and be a perfect, perfect thing to dress up for Halloween as.
IRA FLATOW: Dress up as an octopus for Halloween. And you got all those different changes. But so that means that they have nerves that control each one of those color sacs?
LYNNE FIEBER: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: A nerve for each one?
LYNNE FIEBER: Yeah, this is one of the reasons they’ve got half a billion nerve cells is, that’s pretty inefficient, actually, to do it that way. Fish do it with hormones. They say, heck with the muscle thing. Let’s just have the color sacs expand or contract by hormonal means.
IRA FLATOW: But that means they can’t do it as quickly, I would imagine.
LYNNE FIEBER: Oh, they can.
IRA FLATOW: They can?
LYNNE FIEBER: But there is a cost. There’s a cost. They have to have a lot of their brain devoted to a pretty minor thing, which is–
IRA FLATOW: Well, not if you’re an octopus, it might not be, judgment like that. OK.
I’m sorry. Yes, sir?
AUDIENCE: Two questions. First one is, I read a book by Ed Yong, An Immense World, where he talks about senses, and how humans sense the world, and how animals sense the world. Can you tell us about senses maybe we don’t know about in cephalopods?
LYNNE FIEBER: Yeah, they have the ability to see into parts of the visual spectrum that we can’t. And they can also see polarized light. Now that I’ve just said that, I have seen studies that suggest that cephalopods can see polarization of light. This is extremely useful in the marine realm.
So you could tell what time of day it is with the sun angle coming through various ocean layers. So those are visual acuities that we lack. Our eyesight, as far as the animal kingdom goes, is pretty poor.
Let’s see. They have tremendous mechanoreceptive capabilities. They have a very, very sensitive sense of touch. So rather than having new senses, they’ve got sort of supercharged senses that are the same ones that we’ve got.
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
ANDREA DURANT: I’ll add to that. It seems like they also heavily rely on taste over things like olfaction that other crustaceans, for example, use heavily. So chemoreception is not as big of an influence versus them tasting as they go along.
IRA FLATOW: Interesting, thanks. Thank you for a great audience and asking those questions.
Let me take a moment to remind our listeners this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Just a couple more questions. And these are, I think, kinds of questions I’d like to ask. Because I imagine when your students come to work with you with these creatures, they must be the first time they’re getting really close to them, right? And what are they most surprised by when you work with them?
LYNNE FIEBER: When I first introduce students, undergraduate college students or high school students, to these animals, they’re not seeing them in bags. They’re seeing them actually in open-topped aquariums. So I dig in, and pick one up, and hand it to the students. And the thing that most surprises them is how slimy they are.
I had one little third grader once. She really came up with the perfect description. She said, it feels like a chicken breast that my mom just took out of the refrigerator. Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: That’s good.
LYNNE FIEBER: Cold and slimy, yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Why is it so rare that we see the giant squid, a living one? What makes it so rare?
ANDREA DURANT: Great question. I will say that one of the advantages of studying the small squid is because we can’t catch these giant squid to understand how they use ammonium for buoyancy. And a lot of what we know is from dead animals that have been captured at the surface. They’re pretty deep.
These giant squid are deep dwelling. And it sounds like they really just surface when they are dead, although there have been recent instances where they’ve been filmed quite shallow. But yeah, that’s one of the challenges of a deep dwelling animal.
IRA FLATOW: And Lynne, what’s the biggest challenge in your study? What would– let me amend that. Because I have a blank check in my back pocket here.
LYNNE FIEBER: How did you know I was going to say money?
IRA FLATOW: I talk to a lot of scientists. The answer’s always the same. If I were to give you that blank check, what would you spend it– what do you want to know?
What kind of equipment would you like to be invented that doesn’t work or doesn’t exist yet? What is the biggest mystery for you– and I’ll ask that to you. Andrea, after this– that keeps you from knowing more?
LYNNE FIEBER: I think I would like to design an instrument or a series of instruments that could help me understand how huge numbers of neurons in the brain communicate so effectively, so incredibly rapidly. The range of behaviors that an organism engages in suggest tremendous complexity. And we know that is the case.
And it would be very cool to be able to see it all at once so that you could, at a glance, see, all right, there’s operant conditioning going on. There’s associative learning. There’s this and that and how those things differ. That’s what I would like to know.
IRA FLATOW: Andrea, a question for you.
ANDREA DURANT: Yes, I would say it would be probably more of a technical challenge in terms of actually capturing these squid. It’s very expensive to take these research vessels that are fully equipped with labs and crews. And a lot of the limitations is actually being able to acquire deep sea squid that are below 1000 meters in depth.
So if my name was on a blank check, I would spend it on ways to actually collect and study these squid on board. And so I envision some sort of device [? like ?] their behavior but on a ship. And that’s as far as I’ve–
IRA FLATOW: We have a lot of creative people listening. So maybe somebody will come up. I want to thank both of you for being with us today. Thank you both so much for taking the time to be here tonight, Dr. Lynne Fieber, professor of marine biology and ecology, Dr. Andrea Durant, postdoctoral fellow in the Grosell Environmental Physiology and Toxicology Lab. They both joined me here at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science in Miami, Florida.
LYNNE FIEBER: Thank you, Ira.
ANDREA DURANT: Thank you.