Octopus As White Whale

Bret Grasse, a manager of cephalopod operations at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., with his charge, a lesser Pacific striped octopus.

Yesterday, a story about a small and late victory for whales. Today, a small victory for our other favorite sea creature, in the form of a search for the white whale equivalent among octopus:

A lab in Massachusetts may have finally found an eight-armed cephalopod that can serve as a model organism and assist scientific research.

From a first batch of seven wild Octopus chierchiae, Mr. Grasse and his colleagues have raised over 700 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The tank looked empty, but turning over a shell revealed a hidden octopus no bigger than a Ping-Pong ball. She didn’t move. Then all at once, she stretched her ruffled arms as her skin changed from pearly beige to a pattern of vivid bronze stripes.

“She’s trying to talk with us,” said Bret Grasse, manager of cephalopod operations at the Marine Biological Laboratory, an international research center in Woods Hole, Mass., in the southwestern corner of Cape Cod.

The tiny, striped octopus is part of an experimental colony at the lab where scientists are trying to turn cephalopods into model organisms: animals that can live and reproduce in research institutions and contribute to scientific study over many generations, like mice or fruit flies do.

Cephalopods fascinate scientists for many reasons, including their advanced, camera-like eyes and large brains, which evolved independently from the eyes and brains of humans and our backboned relatives. An octopus, cuttlefish or squid is essentially a snail that swapped its shell for smarts. “They have the biggest brain of any invertebrate by far,” said Joshua Rosenthal, a neurobiologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory. “I mean, it’s not even close.”

Model cephalopods would be a boon for biologists. But keeping these brainy and often bizarre animals in captivity — particularly octopuses — presents both ethical and logistical challenges. The researchers at Woods Hole have had earlier success with raising squid over multiple generations. Yet a single squid can’t tell scientists everything about cephalopods.

“Having different models to answer different questions is, I think, incredibly valuable,” said Caroline Albertin, a developmental biologist at the facility.

But octopuses have long confounded scientists because of several unfortunate habits: They eat each other. They’re notorious escape artists. Mothers die as soon as they reproduce, so it’s hard to build up a breeding population.

That has made the model octopus a kind of white whale — until last year, when Mr. Grasse and his colleagues announced they had raised three consecutive generations of an especially promising octopus species in their lab, more than anyone had before…

Read the whole article here.

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