Eight (or More) Reasons to be Amazed by the Octopus

16:59 minutes

Illustration by Eric Nyquist
Illustration by Eric Nyquist

Today marks the start of Science Friday’s annual Cephalopod Week, a celebration of octopus, squid, cuttlefish, and more. For the coming week, we’ll be sharing cephalopod facts, photos, film, activities, and more. Video producer Luke Groskin takes us inside the lab of psychologist Frank Grasso for a look at how an octopus might see and experience the world around itself. And biologist Carrie Albertin explores the genome of one octopus species, and talks about some of the ways those genes account for the weird and wonderful abilities of this eight-limbed creature.

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Segment Guests

Frank Grasso

Frank Grasso is an Associate Professor of Psychology, and directs The Biomimetic and Cognitive Robotics Laboratory at Brooklyn College in Brooklyn, New York.

Carrie Albertin

Carrie Albertin is a cephalopod researcher and a Hibbitt Early Career Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Luke Groskin

Luke Groskin is Science Friday’s video producer. He’s on a mission to make you love spiders and other odd creatures.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The moment you’ve all been waiting for is here. That’s right. Cephalopod Week is bad. Today marks the start of our celebration of cephalopods. You know what they are. They are– that’s right– octopuses– not octopi– octopuses, squids, cuttlefish, and more.

And to kick off Cephalopod Week, a new video about how an octopus might sense and view the world. What does the world look and feel like for an octopus? So for the rest of the hour, celebrating the octopus, its genes, its body, its mind. And if you’ve got a question– or eight– about the octopus, give us a call.

Let me introduce my guests. Carrie Albertin is a graduate student in biology at the University of Chicago. Worked on the first team to sequence the genome of an octopus. Welcome to the program.

CARRIE ALBERTIN: Hi, Ira. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Frank Grasso is an associate professor of Psychology at Brooklyn College right here in New York. He studies octopuses in the Biomimetic and Cognitive Robotics Lab at Brooklyn College. He’s here with us in our studio.

FRANK GRASSO: Hello, Ira. It’s a pleasure to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Great to have you. And of course, he’s the main character in a new cephalopod video produced by our own Luke Groskin. And Luke is here in our studios as well. Welcome, Luke.


IRA FLATOW: Good to have you all back. Carrie, you were part of a team that mapped out the genome of one species of octopus last year. And what did you discover?

CARRIE ALBERTIN: Oh, we found so many things that were really pretty unexpected for us. I mean, one of the biggest things that we were surprised by was how completely normal, at the level of gene families, the octopus genome looked. So when we sequenced it, we kind of went through and looked for different families of genes. And when we did that, we found that they have kind of the normal number and kinds of genes that are found in other animals like snails and worms.

And this was kind of particularly surprising to us because cephalopods have very big genomes. So the genome of the species of octopus that we sequenced– octopus bimaculoites– is about 2.7 billion base pairs. And that’s about 90% of the size of the human genome, which is about 3.2 billion. And this is many times bigger than the genomes of other animals.

So we thought that they’d actually gotten this big by making multiple copies of their genomes. And this may sound like kind of a crazy idea, but this is actually what happened along the lineage of animals that led to vertebrates like mammals and fish. So mammals and fish actually have multiple copies of their genome– multiple copies of each gene. So when we were looking through the octopus genome, we didn’t actually see that signal and we were really surprised by that.

IRA FLATOW: So do you have any idea what all those extra– all those, I shouldn’t say extra, all those genes are used for?

CARRIE ALBERTIN: Some of them yes. Some of them no. So we found about 10% of the genes didn’t have a match to anything in any other animals, so that’s really exciting. . And we know that there’s a family of these genes that are called the reflectants and they’re involved in the coloration– the structural iridescence– that’s formed in the adaptive camouflage response that these animals have. And so this is just one gene family out of a whole bunch. There’s a lot to discover here.

We also found that there were a couple of gene families that were massively expanded. So most of the gene families just had a single copy of the gene– of the different members– but there was this one family that’s called the protocadherins. And this is a group of genes that are involved in cell adhesion, and they’ve been studied in vertebrates where they play a role in setting up neuronal wiring, but they hadn’t been really described in other animals. And so we thought we were pretty special. We’ve got about 60 of them.

So we were really shocked when we looked in the octopus genome and found 168 of them. And near as we can tell, the last common ancestor of vertebrates and octopus only had one copy of them, of this gene. So they had to expand them independently. I think things like that are really exciting.

IRA FLATOW: Frank, I know you’re excited. You’ve been nodding your head up and down as she spoke over here.

FRANK GRASSO: I think this is really a wonderful set of studies and it’s opening the doors to the floodgates of a whole bunch of knowledge. We’ve needed this for a very, very long time. For a long time people didn’t understand where octopuses came from evolutionarily and in terms of their genetic composition and so forth. So many fundamental questions about these really bizarre and unusual animals, in terms of their bodies and their brains, will begin to be put on a solid footing with this research.

IRA FLATOW: What I found interesting learning about octopuses is that part of their brains are in their arms? Yeah?

FRANK GRASSO: So we talk about the central nervous system of these animals because there’s a distinction between the peripheral nervous system and the central nervous system. And to call it the brain is technically incorrect, but in terms of the computational function of the nerve cords that run through the arms, they really are acting like eight brains that are wired together to the central brain, which is the one that we would consider the cerebral ganglia.

IRA FLATOW: And don’t call them tentacles.

FRANK GRASSO: Absolutely not. They are arms. Tentacles are a really special kind of thing, which is an interesting kind of neural innovation and functional architecture that are really useful and commonly spread across the cephalopods, but octopuses didn’t get one of them.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s go to the phones to Zoe in Elk Grove, California. Hi, Zoe.

ZOE: Hi.

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

ZOE: My name is Zoe and I want to know where are octopuses eyes?

IRA FLATOW: Where are their eyes?

FRANK GRASSO: Well, their eyes are, naturally enough, on the top of their heads. So if you look at an octopus, you’ll see a head and– the eyes have this really interesting feature, Zoe, that I think you’d like. They can actually put up little whiskers by reshaping their skin to kind of reflect whether or not they’re aroused. Maybe we could think about it whether or not they’re angry. Kind of like when a person raises their eyebrows.

IRA FLATOW: Oh. That’s a good analogy. Is that OK? Zoe, does that answer your question?

ZOE: Yes. Thank you. Thank you for listening. Luke, you’ve been to Frank’s lab. It must be a fun place to be in.

LUKE GROSKIN: Well, I’ve got to be honest. It looks just like a bunch of fish tanks stacked on top of one another. But if you do look closely, you’ll notice that there are special kind of rims around the edges of the tanks to make sure that the octopuses can’t escape. And then of course the filtration systems are specially set up so that an octopus can’t squeeze on through and up through and escape that way. And I also got to meet some of the octopuses there.

I believe every successive year the octopuses’ names go by a certain alphabetical order. So previous years was the m year. There was Mufasa and Magneto who were in senescence, which is a stage of life that octopuses enter when they get a little older and they just want to kind of sit around and watch crab shells.

And then the more new ones are Nube and Nugget who are a lot more active and checking out their environment. Really, really always curious. They really come up right to the front of the glass and they check you out and they want to see what you’re up to.

IRA FLATOW: Carrie, have cephalopods evolved different ways to do some of the same things that vertebrates do? We’re talking about those big eyes, for instance.

CARRIE ALBERTIN: Yeah, absolutely. The eyes are a classic example of convergent evolution between vertebrates and cephalopods. In terms of gross anatomy, they look very similar. It’s a camera-type eye with a lens. It creates a proper image. And these are some questions that we’re really interested in exploring. Are there different ways of making the same structure, or are they based in more or less the same gene family setting things up.

IRA FLATOW: How close evolutionarily or in history are the octopuses to squids? I heard they’re millions of years apart. Is that true?

CARRIE ALBERTIN: Yeah. So I think current methods put them at about 270 million years diverged. And so to kind of put that in perspective, that’s before the first dinosaur was walking the earth. These are really old families.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. I’m stunned.

CARRIE ALBERTIN: So they’ve had a lot of time to figure out how to do new and different things. And so even though we kind of group them together– and they are definitely a group– they’ve had a lot of time to come up with new solutions to different problems.

FRANK GRASSO: Looking at the fossil record– where there are fossil records for these things– these animals diverged from our stem somewhere around 505 to 545 million years ago. And in between the time that she just mentioned and 505 million years ago, it was this plethora of species all competing and fighting their way out for a place in the sea. And probably the evolution of the brains from the primordial sort of molluscan form emerged as a result of all these forms– the benthanites and all kinds of unusual forms– that went extinct in between the ancestral cephalopod and the modern coleoid cephalopods that are the squids, the cuttlefishes, and the octopuses.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s going to Deborah in Brown Deer, Wisconsin. Hi, Deborah.

DEBORAH: Hi, Ira. When I heard this was cephalopod– is it Cephalopod Week or Month?

IRA FLATOW: Yes. Week. A whole week. Not a month yet.

FRANK GRASSO: We should have a month, actually.

IRA FLATOW: We’re working our way up to it.

DEBORAH: I said to myself I could use another arm right now because I recently broke my ankle, but anyway, about 35 years ago I was living on a sailboat and we were in St. Barts. And my friend got a spear gun out and went down to get a lobster. And when we were down there– it was just underneath his boat, like maybe 40 feet– and he looked at me. There was a baby octopus, and we looked at each other– no words spoken, of course– and he put his spear gun out and the little baby octopus wrapped one of his– is it a tentacle?


DEBORAH: An arm?


DEBORAH: He wrapped it around the spear gun and it was just a moment of joy that was just– I bet you– I haven’t spoken to him since then and I just know that we would both remember this with vivid imagery. It was amazing. I just think they’re very wonderful animals.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Thanks for your call. They have a reputation for being really smart. Are they as smart as– I mean, they’re clever.

FRANK GRASSO: So let me a pick up on both the thing that Luke mentioned and that that caller just mentioned. There is this sense that you get when you face an octopus, in the tank or in the water, that it is sentient and it’s participating with you.

To say that they’re smart is a difficult thing. To say they’re intelligent, you need a careful definition of intelligence. But their behavior is so complex, and if we’re not overly anthropomorphizing it’s true. They orient to you, they seem to attend to visually, and they make reactions. They actually do. And there’s a literature about the fact that individual cephalopods will keep track of the particular people that they have interacted with in laboratories.

And when they get mad– there are these apocryphal stories where they get mad at individuals and will squirt at them across the room as they approach because they recognize the individuals. So it’s a humorous thing and it may or may not be scientific, but I’ve seen these kinds of things and it certainly goes along with the impression that the animals give when you see them.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Luke, tell us about your video. How fun was it shooting? Difficult? Did you have to go mano a mano with the octopus?


IRA FLATOW: Out-think it?

LUKE GROSKIN: No. I’ve had experiences at The New York Aquarium getting hickies from octopus suckers, but not this time. Didn’t get that intimate with them. It was interesting, though, talking to Dr. Grasso about this notion of self-awareness. I’ve always been curious with different animals that have self-awareness like chimps– they see themselves in a mirror– do octopuses have that?

But in talking with Dr. Grasso, he revealed– and we talk about in the video– that octopuses have their own kind of form of self-awareness. It may not reach their upper brain, but they have their own form of self-awareness via their suckers. They can taste themselves.

So it’d be like if you licked your arm and you were like, yep, that’s me. That’s definitely me. Or if I blindfolded you, put you in a room with other people, and told you to lick other people’s arms and then somehow were able to replicate the taste of your arm and then you licked it and went, oh, that’s me. It’s a little bizarre, but octopuses can do that, which is absolutely fascinating.

FRANK GRASSO: This is work that I did in collaboration with colleagues at the Hebrew University. And it makes great sense for an octopus to be able to have a chemical recognition mechanism. If you have eight arms that are flopping around and have a reflex to attach to whatever they hit no questions asked, you don’t want the octopus tying itself into knots. And this self-recognition mechanism, or at least self-detection mechanism, is kind of a self-defense mechanism.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones and see if I can get a quick question from Chuck in Iowa City, Iowa. Hi, Chuck. Go ahead.

CHUCK: Hi, Ira. I love your show. Thank you for having it on Fridays. Hey, what’s the difference between an octopus and a squid?

IRA FLATOW: OK. Carrie, you want to talk about that?

CARRIE ALBERTIN: So octopuses and their relatives have eight arms. Squid and their relatives, like cuttlefish, have eight arms plus two tentacles. So that’s where the tentacles come in. And they also have– inside kind of an internal shell– in squids it’s a pen. It helps hold their body– their mantle, which is where they keep all of their stomach and their digestive organs and their hearts. It holds it out so when they’re swimming it stays in the right orientation.

IRA FLATOW: There you have it. Luke, in addition to this video with Frank, there’s another cephalopod video in the works.

LUKE GROSKIN: Oh yeah. Next week we’re going to be putting up a video about deep sea squid and how they use ink. I mean, think about that. Why would a squid that lives in total darkness need ink? I mean, we think about ink as being something to escape from a predator. Well, there’s other reasons.

IRA FLATOW: You’re not going to give a hint?

LUKE GROSKIN: Perhaps you’re going to attract a mate. Perhaps you’re going to repel a predator. Perhaps you’re just going to obfuscate yourself before you strike at prey. Perhaps it’s a predation technique. So that’s a video that’s coming next week.

And then there are other videos from our partners like the American Museum of Natural History and Monterey Bay Aquarium that are coming out that are all about this kind of celebration of cephalopods. We have articles that are up on sciencefriday.com. We have a profile of Roger Hanlon who’s been studying the camouflage of cephalopods.

IRA FLATOW: Where’s the octopus video? One of the most famous ones we have.

LUKE GROSKIN: And then we have a profile of the flamboyant cuttlefish, which is basically the equivalent of a squid at a rave. It’s a really, really cool-looking animal. We have a couple of education activities like squid prints where you could make prints using a squid and you can look at their anatomy. We’re going to have a live Facebook with squids for kids where we’re going to look at– it’s going to be an anatomy demonstration of squids. We’re going to have a cephalopod movie night.

IRA FLATOW: A movie night! Where?

LUKE GROSKIN: Yes. In Brooklyn. If you live in New York City, go to sciencefriday.com/cephalopodweek and check that out. And of course, we want you to join in. We want you to share your cephalese. Your photos of you with your cephalopod tattoos, your art. We want you to go to cephalopodweek.tumblr.com to check out all the news that’s going on with cephalopod week.

IRA FLATOW: It’s a giant cephaloparty.

LUKE GROSKIN: Yes. It’s a cephalobration.

IRA FLATOW: Cephalobration! OK.

LUKE GROSKIN: We squid you not!

IRA FLATOW: And they will go on all week. Carrie Albertin is a graduate student in biology at the University of Chicago. Frank Grasso, an associate Professor of Psychology at Brooklyn College. And our own Luke Groskin. And you can see his videos and that stuff up on our website at sciencefriday.com. And enjoy all our Cephalopod Week activities and materials at sciencefriday.com/cephalopodweek. Thank you all. It’s going to be a great week.

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About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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