Why It Took Decades For This Octopus To Be Recognized

11:05 minutes

A man in scuba gear with a large underwater camera.
Arcadio Rodaniche diving. Image courtesy of Denice Rodaniche

Octopus mating behaviors can be quite deadly. Many species are cannibalistic, making the entire prospect of mating dangerous, and female octopuses often die after laying one clutch of eggs. Their cannibalistic tendencies mean that octopuses don’t socialize as much as other animals.

But the larger Pacific striped octopus (LPSO) is different. For one, they live together in colonies. And mating is not only a safer proposition, it involves beak-to-beak “kissing.” Plus, females can lay eggs repeatedly, even tending to embryos at various stages of development.

An illustraton of an ocotpus with stripes and dots all over its body.
An illustration of a larger Pacific striped octopus by Arcadio Rodaniche. Image courtesy of Denice Rodaniche

But because these behaviors are so uncharacteristic of most octopuses, the scientific community didn’t officially recognize their existence until 2015, despite the decades-long effort of a Panamanian diver and artist named Arcadio Rodaniche. When he tried to share his findings about the LPSO at a symposium and publish them in a journal, he was flatly rejected. But his persistent research and documentation of the species would eventually be validated when researchers were able to obtain and observe the octopuses in captivity.

SciFri producer Kathleen Davis sits down with freelance science writer Kenna Hughes-Castleberry to talk about an article she reported for Science Friday about the late Rodaniche and his yearslong effort to get official scientific recognition for the LPSO.

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Segment Guests

Kenna Hughes-Castleberry

Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a freelance science writer and a science communicator at JILA, a physics research institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Segment Transcript

KATHLEEN DAVIS: The Large Pacific Striped Octopus, or the LPSO, is an incredibly social animal. They live in pairs. They mate by kissing beak to beak, and they even take care of the several eggs that they lay. But these traits aren’t normal for octopuses, and for a while, scientists didn’t think this type of octopus even existed. But one person did, Arcadio Rodaniche a diver and artist who lived in Panama.

Here to tell us about Arcadio’s work and his fight for the LPSO’s recognition is Kenna Hughes-Castleberry, freelance writer and science communicator at JILA at the University of Colorado Boulder, who recently wrote an article for sciencefriday.com about the unique octopus’s story. Kenna, welcome to Science Friday.

KENNA HUGHES-CASTLEBERRY: Thank you so much, Kathleen, for having me on.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So before we get into this, can you tell us about what makes this octopus unique?

KENNA HUGHES-CASTLEBERRY: Absolutely. So most octopuses are known as being solitary creatures. They live in dens by themselves. They only interact when they mate, and even then when they mate, they often mate at a distance. So usually the male may fling an arm full of sperm at a female.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Very romantic.

KENNA HUGHES-CASTLEBERRY: Absolutely. Or sometimes they stretch an arm that has the sperm packet at the female, again, from that safe distance because cannibalism and maiming has happened before.

So with these octopuses, they’re super different from that because, as you mentioned, they’re social, and they mate in pairs, and they live together. So this kind of goes against the norm for most octopuses.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: It sounds like there’s a lot to love about this octopus. What is your favorite thing about it?

KENNA HUGHES-CASTLEBERRY: Gosh, that’s such a good question. It’s really difficult to say. I think for me, I just love the fact that these octopuses have a really unique personality. So not only do they mate in pairs, they live together, they live in community, but they also have a really silly hunting strategy, which became popular in 2016 when these octopuses were first kind of announced to the public where they reach a tentacle across a shrimp’s back to the other side of the shrimp and push it into their mouths. It’s kind of like if you have a friend and you touch their shoulder on the opposite side and they look the other way. It’s kind of like that. So it’s quite silly, but it actually works very well for them.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Wow. OK, so how did you get into the story about the history of the LPSO?

KENNA HUGHES-CASTLEBERRY: Yeah, so I was visiting MBARI, which is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, for a separate article I was writing for The Debrief on how octopuses have individual personalities when solving puzzles. And I met with Dr. Christine Huffard there for the interview, and I saw her draw– like a photo of the drawing that Arcadio Rodaniche had made of the LPSO behind her on her desk. And my photographer, Julie, at the time asked her about the drawing, and she got into the story about Arcadio and his work and the octopuses, and I had to learn more. I thought, why has nobody told me this story before? Why is that not more public? So then I just started digging.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And what was Arcadio’s story?

KENNA HUGHES-CASTLEBERRY: Yeah, so Arcadio’s story is one where I hope more people learn about it, but he is a Panamanian diver and artist. He has a degree in electrical engineering. And so when you read about his story, you don’t get the sense that he doesn’t have an academic background in cephalopod research. Most of the articles that we have about him mention him in only one paragraph, and they only say that he’s an octopus researcher. So most people think he had like a PhD and whatnot, and he didn’t. He was just a really passionate diver and found a colony of these octopuses with a very famous cephalopod researcher named Martin Moynihan in the ’70s.

And he thought, this is so strange and so odd, the fact that these octopuses live together, and they do all sorts of weird behaviors. I have to learn more. And so he actually was able to capture some of these specimens and keep them in labs at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Naos off of Panama City, Panama, and studied them and saw more of these behaviors and tried to write up everything.

And he presented his findings at the 1990 Woods Hole Symposium in Massachusetts, and no one believed him because the octopuses were so weird. He didn’t really have any pictures. We don’t have any photos of these octopuses for a long time until 2016, and so he just had mainly his drawings that he showed. And then also, again, he wasn’t like a research academic, so people didn’t really see him being a source of expertise. And so they just kind of laughed him out of the conference, and he was really disgruntled and dejected.

And so he still wanted to try to make a stand, though, for these octopuses and get them classified, and so he wrote up everything in a paper. And he tried to publish it, and it was really severely rejected. There’s only one copy of this paper in existence, and I have not seen it, but it has all of the reviewers’ comments on it. And from what I know, they’re pretty bad. And so he didn’t go into research after that. He just kind of retired and worked on rebuilding a submarine and worked on his art.

And then in 2016, a team of researchers at UC Berkeley, headed by Roy Caldwell, who had actually seen Arcadio do the initial studies with the LPSO’s back in the ’80s, reached out and said, we were able to get live specimens of your octopus. We see that they are doing everything you originally said. Could you be an author on this paper with us?


KENNA HUGHES-CASTLEBERRY: And yeah, they were able to validate it.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So one of the scientists that you spoke to said that it was a shame to the scientific community that his research wasn’t recognized for 30 years. I mean, that seems like a pretty important statement to make. What do you make of that?

KENNA HUGHES-CASTLEBERRY: Yeah, I think it’s one where it’s a really good example of showing that there is elitism in science, unfortunately, and that even if you have a really good idea, sometimes if you just don’t have the degrees, you can’t push forward, no matter how hard you try or no matter how much evidence you have.

I think, thankfully, the cephalopod community seems to be opening more doors to citizen scientists like Arcadio, especially in the case of finding new species or exploring areas that just aren’t accessible. This is because most research academics in this field don’t live in areas where octopuses naturally are, or they might only visit for a few weeks at a time to do field work. And so if they can pair with citizen scientists like local fishermen, divers, underwater photographers, they can be able to track these animals more thoroughly, understand how they survive in the wild.

So at least with the LPSOs, we actually have never seen them in the wild. We don’t know what they’re like in the wild. All of the experiments we have are only with home aquaria or in tanks.


KENNA HUGHES-CASTLEBERRY: And so it would be very interesting, at least in this case, to try to pair with people down in Panama to see what actually is going on.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So why is it that the large Pacific striped octopus was so hard to find? I mean, what makes it so elusive?

KENNA HUGHES-CASTLEBERRY: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So I think one thing is a lack of information. We only have Arcadio’s paper and, really, the 2016 paper that Caldwell and his team did that validated Arcadio’s findings on this animal. Those are kind of the only two pieces of scientific literature out there right now, and it’s really a lack of going down and seeing these animals in the wild. That would give us a lot more data and a lot more information.

But as the researchers will also tell you, there’s also been a lack of live samples. So it’s been hard for people these days to actually obtain these animals and study them even further. The only reason Caldwell and his team were able to is because one of the live animal traders was able to obtain some samples from local fisherman and said, hey, I have this weird octopus that you keep asking about. I was finally able to get it. And so hopefully in the future if people get grants or if they’re able to obtain more samples, we’ll be able to find more out about these animals.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: What is the state of research right now on the LPSO?

KENNA HUGHES-CASTLEBERRY: Yeah, so it’s kind of stalled a little bit, again due to lack of funding, lack of just information. But there is a team headed by Gul Dolen at UC Berkeley that is trying to actually genetically name this species. And by genetically name, I mean genetically analyze and then give it a scientific name. So the large Pacific striped octopus does not have a scientific name. It’s only known as the LPSO, which is its common name.

It has a cousin known as the Lesser Pacific Striped Octopus, also LPSO, but its scientific name is Octopus chierchiae. And so Dolen’s team is currently genetically analyzing octopus chierchiae because it would make for a good model organism for research, right, like the LPSO cousin. It produces multiple clutches of eggs. It’s pretty small. It’s easy to maintain. It would just be a good model organism for research.

But once they do that, they’d like to analyze the larger Pacific striped octopus to see if it’s genetically distinct enough, and if it is, give it a scientific name. And according to Dolen she’d like to name it after Arcadio Rodaniche.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: That’s really special. So after you’ve spent all this time, no pun intended, diving into the story of the large Pacific striped octopus, what are your own takeaways?

KENNA HUGHES-CASTLEBERRY: Yeah, I think it’s one for me where, again, I’m still kind of surprised that nobody has covered this story before. It’s just such an underdog story, and it’s such a comeback story, and it’s really a good kind of showcase for citizen science, for perseverance, and for scientific dedication.

It’s also one where I think it just breaks the norm in so many ways about what we already know about octopuses and the fact that there are other species out there that could be really social and really critical for just learning more about animal behavior. And so I really hope more people kind of get inspired by his story and pursue this further.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to tell us all about it.

KENNA HUGHES-CASTLEBERRY: Thank you so much, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Kenna Hughes-Castleberry, freelance writer. You can read her article about the LPSO at sciencefriday.com/octopus.

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