Love And War In The World Of The Cephalopod

15:57 minutes

Art by Daniel Peterschmidt

The fourth annual Cephalopod Week—the celebration of all things tentacled—kicks off today. Digital managing editor Brandon Echter gives us a preview of all of the the videos, online activities, and live events that will happen during the cephaloparty. Brandon also takes us into the lab of two cephalopod researchers: “octopus matchmaker” Richard Ross, who’s breeding the lesser Pacific striped octopus to study the life cycle of the poorly understood species; and Elizabeth Shea, curator of mollusks at the Delaware Museum of Natural History, who’s using math to determine the global population of the elusive giant squid.

[Squids on screen: The SciFri Cephalopod Movie Night is back!]

Plus, you may know that cephalopods use camouflage, mimicry, and ink squirts to make a slick getaway from predators or to capture prey. But have you heard of the “passing cloud” or the “fish slap”? Octopus researcher Jean Alupay describes these lesser-known octopus behaviors.

Videos courtesy of University of Southern California

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With every donation of $8 (for every day of Cephalopod Week), you can sponsor a different illustrated cephalopod. The cephalopod badge along with your first name and city will be a part of our Sea of Supporters!


Segment Guests

Jean Alupay

Jean Alupay is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California.

Brandon Echter

Brandon Echter was Science Friday’s digital managing editor. He loves space, sloths, and cephalopods, and his aesthetic is “cultivated schlub.”

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. I know you’ve been waiting all year to wrap your arms around this week. That’s right. It’s the start of cephalopod week. We’ve created eight days of crazy cuttlefish fun and all types of activities to celebrate your favorite cephalopod.

And to kick it off, we have two new videos. You’ve heard the saying, “all’s fair in love and war?” Well, that’s also true in the world of the cephalopods. Our digital managing editor, Brandon Echter, is here to tell us about these epic battles going on in the ocean. Hi, Brandon.

BRANDON ECHTER: Hey, Ira. How you doing?

IRA FLATOW: I’m excited.

BRANDON ECHTER: Oh, yeah. No, I’m super excited too. So Ira, just to kind of start things off–


BRANDON ECHTER: You’ve been to the American Museum of Natural History, right? You’ve seen the big diorama of the sperm whale fighting the giant squid. How many times a year do you think that happens?

IRA FLATOW: Now, I would guess about half a dozen, half a dozen times.

BRANDON ECHTER: Mmm. If we’re playing by Price is Right rules, you would be doing OK. But let’s say, how would you feel if I told you that battle could have been happening up to or even more than 4.3 million times a year?

IRA FLATOW: 4.3 million?

BRANDON ECHTER: Yeah, 4.3 million. So Luke Groskin, our video producer, actually went down to the Delaware Museum of Natural History to talk to the curator of mollusks, Liz Shea, and to solve this like math problem, because we know that like sperm whale eat giant squid. We know that giant squid are out there in the world.

But we see them so rarely. In fact, I think there are only two videos of living giant squid out in the wild that we actually have. But we do know that sperm what eat them, because their beaks show up in stomachs.

So basically, she and some colleagues at the Smithsonian worked together to kind of figure out– do some math and figure out how many times a year this battle starts. So say there are about 360,000 sperm whale left in the wild.


BRANDON ECHTER: And let’s just estimate that they eat one giant squid a month.

IRA FLATOW: All right.

BRANDON ECHTER: And then let’s say that’s 12 times a year, so that brings you to that 4.3 million, which is a crazy number.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s a crazy number.

BRANDON ECHTER: There’s a lot of ifs around that number. We don’t know exactly how much giant squid sperm whale actually eat. It could be a lot less than that. But it could also be a lot more than that.

So if they eat at one once a week, it could even bring it up to 130 million battles happening every time. And the population’s going to be even more enormous.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, that is crazy. Now, you have a couple of video clips you want to tell us about.

BRANDON ECHTER: Yeah. So we also did a video with this guy Richard Ross. He handles the reef tank at the Steinhart Aquarium out in San Francisco. But he has a really interesting side gig. So we have a clip of him describing how he ID’s octopuses.

RICHARD ROSS: On the ends of their arms, the female has just suckers. But the male has this little kind of fuzzy papillae. And once you’re able to spot the difference, they’re actually very easy to sex, which makes your life as a cephalopod escort service, I guess– it makes it very easy.



IRA FLATOW: IDing a cephalopod.

BRANDON ECHTER: Yeah. A cephalopod, an octopus escort service. That’s right. We were–

IRA FLATOW: He’s playing Cupid?

BRANDON ECHTER: Yeah. Well, we came up with a couple of fun names. We were like OctoCupid, Plenty o’ Cuttlefish, Tentacler. You know, it’s all a bunch of– so basically, he has this whole home lab, where he breeds a lot of reef animals, including this one species of octopus that’s pretty rarely seen, called the Lesser Pacific Striped Octopus, which is only found in this one stretch of the Central American coast that we know of.

And we’ve never seen a full lifecycle of this species before, so he has been breeding them and he’s going to keep some in captivity. He has a couple of baby octopuses right now. They’re beautiful. They’re like the cutest things on the face of the earth, Ira.

And we’re going to see what their actual lifecycle looks like. So we’ll find out in 2018. So everyone should check out the videos at sciencefriday.com/cephalopodweek, learn more about the research, because there’s so much more interesting stuff there.

IRA FLATOW: Great. Great videos. Cephalopods, as we know, are masters of trickery. They can use their camouflage to hide right in plain sight, or they can squirt a cloud of ink to make a quick getaway. But you know, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Have you heard of passing cloud, the passing cloud? I hadn’t heard about this before. What about the fish slap? Hmm.

I want to bring on a guest who studies octopus defense strategies. She’s here to tell us about these fascinating cephalopod behaviors. Jean Alupay is post-doctoral research associate, University of Southern California. Welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: You study a specific species of octopus?

JEAN ALUPAY: Yes, I do. It’s called Abdopus aculeatus. It’s one that’s about maybe 4 centimeters in average size. They’re found in the tropical Indo West Pacific, so places like the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia. And they have really long arms, which is the thing that I’m most interested with them, is they can have arms that are about four times longer than their actual body size.

IRA FLATOW: Four times. And now, can you tell by looking at the arms– I’ve always wondered about this, if it’s a male or a female octopus?

JEAN ALUPAY: Yes. If you look at their third right arm– so if you looked at an octopus, up above you can divide them into a right side and a left side. And from the very top of the arm right above the head, if you count to the third arm, it has a groove that goes all the way down, where they deposit sperm that will go into the female when they mate.

IRA FLATOW: Huh. Are there certain species of octopuses– do they lose or regrow arms? You know, like by escaping can they lose an arm and regrow it back?

JEAN ALUPAY: Absolutely. I think all octopuses have this particular ability of regenerating an arm. But particular species, like the one that I’m studying, Abdopus aculeatus, actually are able to detach their arm as a mode of defense against a predator. So most of the time, octopus want to camouflage, not be seen by the predator. But if in case they do get seen and they get captured, what they can do is just detach their arm and get away, leaving that arm with the predator. And they’ll still be able to regenerate that arm in two to three months. We’ve seen that in aculeatus it’s about two to three months to regenerate an arm.

IRA FLATOW: Two to three months. And there’s got to be a limited number of arms you have to have left as an octopus, I would think, to function.

JEAN ALUPAY: It’s very interesting, because there have been cases I’ve seen up to five arms being lost on an octopus in the Philippines. And I’ve read about other individuals seeing like one arm being left on the octopus. So it seems like they can still function with that one arm, crawling along the ocean floor.

IRA FLATOW: So they can still get around with that one arm or two arms?

JEAN ALUPAY: Absolutely. They can still get around. They can also use jet propulsion to sort of swim along. So they still have other modes. They might not be as effective, but they can still get around.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I know that you and your colleagues use math to try to decode the patterns on the skin of an octopus. What do you find fascinating about this, and what do you discover?

JEAN ALUPAY: So what we’ve been looking at specifically is this defense mechanism called the passing cloud. So if you were to imagine that on the octopus there’s this patch of dark coloration that we’re calling a cloud, and if it were just to move across the body of the animal, it makes it seem like the animal is moving even though it’s just the coloration patterns that are moving across the body of the animal.

This has been thought to be used to sort of startle whether it’s predators, or oftentimes if they’re hunting and they’re trying to get food, say like crabs, they’ll use this particular display to sort of startle the crab in place, think that the octopus has moved, but in reality it’s still right there. It’s just that this cloud of coloration has moved across their body. And then they can easily just grab the crab or just get away from the animal that it startled.

IRA FLATOW: It’s the old–

JEAN ALUPAY: So it’s very interesting how this–

IRA FLATOW: The old distraction move.

JEAN ALUPAY: Absolutely. It’s an absolute distraction. The autonomy, the loss of the arm, this passing cloud, these are all very good distractions, whether you’re trying to get your prey or you’re trying to get away from a predator.

IRA FLATOW: So the octopus is the ultimate magician, you know, using arms to distract, but you’ve got eight of them in this case.

JEAN ALUPAY: Absolutely. You have multiple tries to doing that.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I know this is going to sound like the beginning of a joke, but let me ask it anyhow. How is an octopus like a human tongue? And the answer is–

JEAN ALUPAY: They both have muscular hydrostats.

IRA FLATOW: Of course!

JEAN ALUPAY: That’s what everyone would say the answer would be.

IRA FLATOW: Of course they would.

JEAN ALUPAY: So in both– in the human tongue and an octopus arm there are no bones. There are no hard parts. But what they can use as sort of their structure for movement is the muscle themselves. So we’re used to thinking of muscles as creating movement in our arms, in our legs, contracting a bone.

But in this particular case, they’re using muscles that are oriented in different directions, whether it’s along the arm, around the arm, through the arm. And depending on where you’re contracting, you can get different types of movement. And so one of the things we’re interested in understanding is how we can get these two different things, the tongue and the octopus arm, to create different varieties of movement, and if there’s any principles that are similar between these two animals that we think are very different, but that they’re using the same sort of– getting the same sorts of movements but for different purposes, whether it’s for talking in humans or just to get around or to slap a fish, which we’ve seen in the field in the octopus.

IRA FLATOW: Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait a minute. I’ve got to go back here a second. Slap a fish? I thought that happens only in cartoons or something. The octopus will slap a fish with one of its arms?

JEAN ALUPAY: Yes. We’ve seen this in Okinawa, Japan. We went looking at another species that’s similar to Abdopus aculeatus that will take an arm and it’s kind of like it’s punching it. It’ll roll it all up and then unfurl it, and have pretty good aim at fish that are around it. And it’s thought to be sort of a territorial defense mechanism, where it’s trying to keep that fish from coming close to its den. And so it’s pretty good at using all eight arms and trying to slap this fish out of the way.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s kind of– so it’s slapping it out of the way. It’s not trying to capture it.

JEAN ALUPAY: No. It was not trying to capture it at all. It’s just sort of like another deterrent. Just get out of this area. This is my area.

IRA FLATOW: It’s my area. Now, we talk about this every year in cephalopod week. They are arms on octopuses, right? They are not tentacles, right?

JEAN ALUPAY: Correct. They are arms, yes.

IRA FLATOW: Why? Why do some of the other cephalopods have tentacles, and we call these arms?

JEAN ALUPAY: So these are arms because they’re– so cephalopods are part of a bigger group of animals called mollusks. And one of their defining characteristics is that they have a foot, so they’re related to, say, snails, which have a foot that they use to move along.

And so the arms are derived from that same foot muscle, whereas when we think of squid, they have eight arms, but they also have two tentacles. And those tentacles are modified for grabbing food. So it just depends on the origin of where they come from.

IRA FLATOW: That’s fascinating, Jean. Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today. And good luck on your work. We are always interested to have you back on cephalopod week.

JEAN ALUPAY: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Jean Alupay is a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Southern California.

I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. And it is cephalopod week, and we’re talking about all the events. Brandon Echter is back. What sort of events are going on, being planned for this week?

BRANDON ECHTER: Oh, man, Ira. So like we normally do, we’re going to be celebrating all week long with the hashtag cephalopodweek on Twitter and Instagram, posting stuff on Facebook, sharing amazing stories from our archive, and also sending out new stories. We’re going to have things like we have this amazing pixel art that one of our staffers, Daniel Peterschmidt, created. And we’re creating fact cards. And we’re going to be doing a Facebook Live with our education team, and have a 3-D cephalopod beak gallery that you’ll be able to play around with, which is really fun.

And it’s not only that. We’re actually going into the real world this year. So we’re actually teaming up with Atlas Obscura to bring events to four cities around the country. We’re doing cephalopod movie nights, so you’ll be able to see the videos that I talked about earlier today, and also some new ones that are like– some other ones that are from our archives, some old-school classics.

And if you go to these events, they’re in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. You may be able to hang out with octopuses themselves. You may be able to see an underwater marionette-themed puppet show. You may play a cephalopod quiz. So it’s going to be all sorts of fun things happening.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I know you’re into this, like I am.


IRA FLATOW: We’re into this. You’ve got to have a favorite cephalopod of your own.

BRANDON ECHTER: Oh, man. Well, I love the giant squid. I think it’s ridiculous. And I’m a little bit of a science fiction, Jules Verne nerd myself. But I also really love the flamboyant cuttlefish. I’m a big fan.

So I think they’re– you know, cuttlefish I feel are a little underappreciated among cephalopod lovers, not as much as the nautilus. But you know, they’re beautiful. And they have these very vibrant patterns and stuff like that. And actually, I kind of have a question for everyone out there, if you don’t mind me asking.

IRA FLATOW: No, go right ahead.

BRANDON ECHTER: Yeah. So I want to know, same question of everyone else, what’s your favorite cephalopod? So tweet it at us. We’re @scifri. And use the hashtag cephalopodweek. And what’s your favorite?

IRA FLATOW: Well, you know, I think the squid is probably my favorite. But I just thought of something. I want to throw this out as an idea.

We use to have Oliver Sacks. The late Oliver Sacks used to come on the show and talk about cephalopods all the time. And in fact, it was one of his favorite things to talk about. He once came on the show wearing a cephalopod t-shirt. He had cephalopods in his hands.

Maybe we could get the biologists to name a cephalopod after Oliver Sacks. Would that be great?

BRANDON ECHTER: I think that would be– I think that would be an awesome idea.

IRA FLATOW: That would be great.

BRANDON ECHTER: Because I remember he actually– he stuck around for a segment we did about the giant squid. He was here for an unrelated story and just stuck around because he loved them so much. And he had a cephalopod t-shirt collection, which is somewhere in our cephalopod archives.


BRANDON ECHTER: No, I think that’s a great idea. But I’d also like to see everyone else’s cephalopod stuff too. Like Richard Ross has an octopus tattoo. And our events manager Rachel, she has an octopus costume, which is–

IRA FLATOW: And Rachel Feltman, who was here earlier, has a tattoo on her arm.

BRANDON ECHTER: Yeah. Cephalopod fans, we’re everywhere. We’re hidden in plain sight, camouflaged.

IRA FLATOW: So maybe when they go to these events, they could dress up as their favorite cephalopod.

BRANDON ECHTER: I would love to see– I would love to see everyone’s best cephalopod costumes. I’m wearing a cephalopod– I’m wearing an adorabilis t-shirt right now. Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Brandon. Brendan Echter is our digital managing editor. You can join in on all the cephalopod activities and get tickets to our live events on our website at sciencefriday.com.

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