Scientists are trying to understand cephalopods’ behavior and molecular makeup.

Cephalopod Science Is Even Weirder and More Mysterious Than You Imagined

Cephalopod Science Is Even Weirder and More Mysterious Than You Imagined

Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
Dec. 16 2015 12:30 PM

The Cutting Edge of Cephalopod Science

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This cute little guy may be the future of medicinal technology.

Photo: David Sim/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

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A report was released in October about a trio of baby giant squid that was discovered off the coast of Japan, giving us our first glimpse at the early lives of these mysterious creatures. But even with this astounding new find, much about cephalopods in general remains a mystery. How do they think? How do they control their alien bodies? How do they get so good at hiding?

Luckily cephalopod scientists are looking for answers, and recent discoveries suggest that they could have an impact everywhere from the medical world to the military.

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To find out more, we spoke with Dr. Joshua Rosenthal with the Institute of Neurobiology at the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus. Rosenthal has studied cephalopod genetics for 25 years, and he says there are a number of areas of interest currently fascinating researchers, chief among them the ways that cephalopods think, their odd molecular makeup, and their remarkable camouflage abilities. But really it all comes down to their complexity. “Ninety percent of the work being done on cephalopods can be thought of as being under the umbrella of complexity,” says Rosenthal.

Nothing is simple about squid and octopi, neither their behavior nor their molecular makeup. As Rosenthal notes, the roots of cephalopod behavior are completely alien to our own. “You could argue that a mouse or a dog or us or a chimp, that we’ve come along a similar lineage to achieve behavioral complexity,” says Rosenthal. “Becoming organisms that can make choices, solve puzzles, things like that.” However cephalopods have come to this sort of higher functioning through a completely different, and seemingly unique, lineage that we are now trying to understand. This presents in a number of ways, from octopi that are able to open jars or escape their tanks (and even predict sports outcomes, although that is less scientific), to a remarkable behavior observed in Humboldt squid that may be a form of communication. In the case of the Humboldt squid, they have been observed creating a strobe effect along their skin, rapidly changing the color from red to white, in what is hypothesized to be a way of talking to other nearby squid. 

Another big question along these lines is whether or not cephalopods have thinking skin. All cephalopods have chromatophores in their skin that allow them to change colors, generally to camouflage themselves, but we are now learning that this process may be controlled by a system that could be thought of as a secondary brain spread throughout the skin. Octopi in particular are possibly the greatest chameleons in all of nature with the ability to change not only the color, but also the texture of their skin. “These guys blow chameleons away,” says Rosenthal.

As Rosenthal told us, the central nervous system of cephalopods is known to play a part in the production of their camouflage abilities, but they may also use a peripheral nervous system to automatically change color in response to stimulus. Researchers have found that some cephalopods not only have light-sensing proteins embedded in their skin (proteins that are normally found in the eye), but that they may be able to change their skin color without consulting their brain. “Maybe the skin as an organ has the ability to process information locally,” said Rosenthal. “We always think of our brain as the brain in our head, right? [But with cephalopods] you might have to start thinking of their brain as this mass of neurons in their head, but also they have a lot of neurons in the periphery, in their arms, in their skin, that are processing information.” Of course the research into the smart skin of cephalopods and their remarkable camo is of great interest to military contractors, who actually fund some of the work in the field.

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And it’s not just color but movement as well. Israeli researchers have recently discovered that some octopi tentacles look to be controlled not directly by the brain but by their neuron-dense arms themselves. Just imagine if your arm was able to do its own thing while your brain focused on something else. If this same behavior could be taught to robotic arms we would be one step closer to lifelike robots, as one example.

Even down to the molecular level, we are still discovering amazing things about cephalopods. Rosenthal’s own work is at the level of genes and RNA, and he has discovered a cephalopod trait that could one day have a massive impact on the world of medicine. Without getting too lost in the jargon, Rosenthal has found that cephalopods are masters of RNA editing. Traditionally in biological systems of any kind, genes send information to RNA, which acts as a middleman, processing the information from genes and spitting out the appropriate proteins that then go and enact whatever function they were created for. However in cephalopods it is beginning to look like their RNA is regularly changing and editing the information from their genes, possibly in response to outside stimulus. “Cephalopods have this really active system of changing information at the level of RNA,” Rosenthal said, “Sixty to 70 percent of their genes are changed at the level of RNA. So the gene will say, ‘the protein should look like this,’ but then it gets changed into RNA, and it gets edited slightly. Like you’d edit a story.”

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This octopus was using shells for protection.

Photo: Nick Hobgood/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

RNA editing is not unheard of in other species. In fact, humans have around 100 sites in their bodies where the process can occur. But according to Rosenthal’s research there are close to 60,000 such sites in squid. What all this science talk means is that squid may be able to change their genetic information on the fly in response to their environment. The actual application of this RNA editing is still being researched, but if it is true that single organisms can change their molecules and internal processes to immediately adapt to changes, the ramifications could be huge. The biggest application could very well be in the field of medicine where we may one day be able to get our own bodies to be so molecularly fleet-footed. Cephalopods are riding a wave a popularity right now (pun intended), and the more we get to know about them, it seems that they might be creeping into the spotlight more and more. 

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Eric Grundhauser is a head writer and editor at Atlas Obscura. He lives in Brooklyn with his comic book collection. Follow him on Twitter.