Octopus Nuggets II


Octopus Nuggets I discussed some unusual characteristics of our favorite cephalopod, including the idea that two thirds of the octopuses brain is in their arms, the manner in which the three hearts of an octopus operate, some stories of their reproductive process, and the near-unprecedented loyalty a mother octopus extends to her offspring. We also discussed the ink cloud defense, and the fascinating pseudomorph the octopus creates when, presumably, a simple ink cloud doesn’t confuse the predator enough. If any of these characteristics fascinate the reader, I suggest they read that post first, as this second installment is more of an extension on the more elementary discussion on the characteristics of the octopus.

Image courtesy of Cool Facts for Kids

With the recent and largely refuted click-bait story that the octopus may have originated on another planet, my interest in the octopus was reborn. A word of caution here, the information in this second installment may blow your mind. I’m not going suggest that you take a seat, as I am biologically predisposed to avoiding clichés of this stripe, but if anything happens to anyone while reading the final third of this piece, I hereby absolve myself of all responsibility.

Most of those who love stories regarding the surprisingly complex brain of the octopus have heard the myriad of stories regarding the ability the octopus has to figure puzzles out and escape the best, most secure aquariums, and the tales of SCUBA divers playing hide and seek with an octopus. A writer for Wired, Katherine Harmon Courage, has presumably heard the same stories, and she has an interesting, provocative idea for why we should continue to explore the octopus for more stories though more research, as they might prove instrumental in developing a greater understanding of the human mind.

“If we can figure out how the octopus manages its complex feats of cognition, we might be closer to discovering some of the fundamental elements of thought –and to developing new ideas about how mental capacity evolved.”

As stated in the first installment, the octopus has more neurons in its arms than it does in its brain. I assume the arms and brain work in unison for some sort of prime directive, but what if one of the arms disagrees? As Scientific American states, “Like a starfish, an octopus can regrow lost arms. Unlike a starfish, a severed octopus arm does not regrow another octopus.” So, if the brain directs the arm to perform a dangerous task, does an arm ever exhibit self-preservation qualities? Does an arm ever say something equivalent to, “I saw what you did to arm number four last week, and I witnessed you grow another arm, good as new, in a short time. I do not consider myself as expendable as arm number four was. I am a quality arm that has served you well over the years,“ arm says to brain. “Why don’t you ask arm number seven to perform this function? We all know that arm is far less productive.” I realize this is largely a silly rhetorical question that no one can answer, but it gets to the core question, how much autonomy do the arms have?

Blue Blood: How many of us believed the tale that humans have blue blood, and that it only turns red when introduced to oxygen. The octopus actually does have blue blood, and as Laurie L. Dove writes in How Stuff Works, it’s crucial to their survival.

“The same pigment that gives the octopus blood its blue color, hemocyanin, is responsible for keeping the species alive at extreme temperatures. Hemocyanin is a blood-borne protein containing copper atoms that bind to an equal number of oxygen atoms. It’s part of the blood plasma in invertebrates.” She also cites a National Geographic piece by Stephan Sirucek when she writes, “[Blue blood] also ensures that they survive in temperatures that would be deadly for many creatures, ranging from temperatures as low as 28 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 1.8 degrees Celsius) to superheated temperatures near the ocean’s thermal vents.”

On the planning front, the Katherine Harmon Courage piece in Wired by states that researchers have discovered that octopuses in Indonesia will gather coconut shell halves in preparation for stormy weather, then take shelter by going inside the two pieces of shell and holding it shut.

Courage’s Wired piece also suggested, “If you asked Jean Boal, a behavioral researcher at Millersville University about the inner life of octopuses, she might tell you that they are cognitive, communicative creatures. Boal attempted to feed stale squid to the octopuses in her lab and one cephalopod sent her a clear message: It made eye contact and used one of its arms to shove the squid down a nearby drain, effectively telling her that stale food would be discarded rather than being eaten.”

The freaky almost unnerving elements of this story, for me, lay in the details of the Jean Boal’s story. The idea that an animal might exhibit a food preference suggests a certain level of intelligence, but I’m not sure if that level of intelligence surpasses that of say the dog or the cat. The eerie part for me occurred in contemplating how the octopus relayed that message. Boal suggested that she fed the stale squid to a number of her octopus subjects, and when she returned to the first octopus in that line, that first octopus waited for her to return. It looked her in the eye when she did and shoved the stale squid down the drain, maintaining eye contact throughout the act. I wasn’t there, of course, and I can only speculate based on what Boal said occurred during this incident, but she made it sound like the octopus made a pointed effort to suggest that not only didn’t want to eat what Boal served it, but it was insulted by her effort to pass this stale squid off as quality food.

We all characterize our pets, and other animals with human emotions and statements, but how many dogs and cats will do something more than sniff at the food and move along? How many will wait for a human to return, so they can be assured that the message will be received, and how many will look the humans in the eye before discarding the food in such an exclamatory manner? I don’t know if you’re anything like me, but the thought creeps me out in the sense that I thought I had a decent framework for how intelligent these beings were.

The characteristics we’ve discussed thus far in part I and in the portion you’ve read thus far in part II are fascinating to me, illuminating, and as I say unsettling to those of us that find comfort in the idea that humans are heads and shoulders more intelligent than the other species. This next part may be where the reader reconsiders whether they should set up some reinforcements behind them.

Recent scientific discoveries are suggesting that the octopus can edit their Ribonucleic acid (RNA). Boom! How are you doing? Did you forget to remove any sharp objects behind you? If the only thing keeping you upright is the idea that you kind of, sort of don’t know what RNA is? Don’t worry, I had to look it up too, and the Google dictionary defines RNA as an enzyme that works with deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in that it “carries instructions from DNA for controlling the synthesis of proteins, although in some viruses RNA rather than DNA carries the genetic information.”

For those that don’t consider this a “Holy stuff!” fact, think about this. The next time you’re in your man cave engaged in a spider solitaire marathon some octopus somewhere is in their cave re-configuring their molecular structure to redefine their characteristics in a manner that will help it escape a shark attack better. One example might be the pseudomorph. The octopus may have sat in their cave one day realizing that the simple shot of ink was no longer confusing sharks the way it once did, so it reconfigured its typical ink cloud shooting abilities to produce a self-portrait of itself that might confuse predators for just enough time to secure the octopuses’ survival. As we will discuss later, octopus researchers aren’t sure why they edit their RNA, but we have to assume it has something to do with predation, either surviving it or finding nuanced ways to perfect it. If you’re is nowhere near as fascinated with this idea as I am, at this point, you will have to excuse my crush with these cephalopods in the ensuing paragraphs.

An article from Business Insider further describes the difference between DNA and RNA as it applies to editing them, by stating, “Editing DNA allows a species to evolve in a manner that is more permanent for future generations. This is how most species evolve and survive. When a being edits their RNA, however, they can essentially “try out” an adaptation” to see if it works. One other note the authors of this piece make on this subject is that “Unlike a DNA adaptation, RNA adaptations are not hereditary.” Therefore, one can only guess that if an octopus discovers an RNA rewrite that is successful for survival or predation, they can presumably teach this to their offspring, or pass it along information by whatever means an octopus passes along such information. (Octopuses are notorious loners that don’t communicate with one another well.)

A quote from within the article, from a Professor Eli Eisenberg, puts it this way: “You can think of [RNA editing] as spell checking. If you have a word document. If you want to change the information, you take one letter and you replace it with another.”

Research suggests that while humans only have about ten RNA editing sites, octopuses have tens of thousands. Current science is unable to explain why an octopus edits their RNA, or when it started in the species. I must also add here that I don’t know how they can determine with any certitude that an octopus can edit their RNA. I’m sure that they examine the corpses of octopuses and compare them to others, but how can they tell that the octopus edits their RNA themselves? How do they know, with this degree of certitude, that there aren’t so many different strains of octopus who all have wide variables in their RNA strands? I’m sure someone will tell me that the process is far more elementary than I’m making it, and I’m revealing my ignorance on this topic in this paragraph, but I’ve read numerous attempts to study the octopus, and almost all of them suggest that the live octopus is notoriously difficult to study. Some have described their rebellious attempts to thwart brain study as obnoxious. If that’s the case, then I have to ask if the conclusions they reach are largely theoretical based on the studies of octopus corpses.

If it’s an embarrassing display of ignorance on my part to ask how we know if octopuses edit their RNA, is it more embarrassing to ask if we know how they do it? For those that consider this a futile task, I again ask how do we know that they do it in the first place. The answer to that question circles back to Katherine Harmon Courage’s provocative notion that “If we can figure out how the octopus manages its complex feats of cognition, we might be closer to discovering some of the fundamental elements of thought –and to developing new ideas about how mental capacity evolved.”

If we are able to do that, Gizmodo.com quotes scientists that suggest we might be able to root out a mutant RNA in our own strands to see if we can edit them in a manner that helps us cure a number of ailments heretofore considered incurable.

For those scientists that seek guidance on how to edit human RNA the authors of the Business Insider, David Anderson and Abby Tang piece cited above suggest that if these scientists “Have recently proven ways of using the [genome editing tool] CRISPR-Cas9 to edit RNA, perhaps they can learn a thing or two from the experts [octopuses].”

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