New octopus? APU research finds characteristics that may indicate a fresh species

mtheriault@adn.comJune 22, 2013 

The giant Pacific octopuses that live on the third floor of Alaska Pacific University's Grant Hall are named Khaleesi and Dean.

They pulse gently in 1,000-gallon saltwater tanks, tenderly ministered to by a rotating crew of graduate students who feed them manila clams purchased at New Sagaya and occasionally offer a Mr. Potato Head doll for exploring tentacles.

They appear to be the same: Both have a dusky rose hue, the smell of sea and musk and undulating tentacles that feel like a wet suctioning bath mat, only stronger.

But APU professor David Scheel and his students have discovered that Dean may actually belong to a never-before seen sub-species of octopus found in Prince William Sound.

Scheel has been studying the giant Pacific octopus, a little-understood species of marine invertebrate that grows bigger and lives longer than any other octopus, since 1995. He takes students on yearly summer research trips to the outer corners of Prince William Sound and Kachemak Bay to gather data on the way the octopus eat, mate and live. Over the years graduate and undergraduate students have conducted their own offshoot projects, measuring the stress hormones of octopus caught as bycatch in commercial fisheries, tracking their nocturnal hunting patterns and using video analysis to gauge the adhesive force of tentacle suckers.

They've amassed a trove of information about a species that doesn't get studied very much, Scheel said.

"It's really becoming a long-term study," he said.

But potentially discovering a new species is the most exciting development yet.

Graduate student Beki Toussaint and undergraduate Nathan Hollenbeck pioneered work on the previously undiscovered "lineage" of octopuses, which researchers first noticed had different skin folds and body patterns than regular giant Pacific octopus.

Hollenbeck said he worked with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Prince William Sound fishermen to collect live octopus specimens which were then turned over for genetic testing, which backed up the idea that something was different about the octopuses in the "divergent" lineage.

"We noticed there were certain individuals that kind of really gave strange (genetic) signatures," said Sandra Talbot, a research wildlife geneticist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage who tested some of the octopuses. More samples will need to be analyzed by a taxonomist and geneticists, said Hollenbeck.

"It's in the really early stages of possibly for classifying it as a new species," Hollenbeck said.

Still, it's a big deal for a college senior to co-author a paper raising the possibility of identifying a new species.

Hollenbeck and Scheel published a paper about the possibility in the American Malacological Society Newsletter last fall.

"It's exciting to potentially come out of undergraduate with published literature and contributing to scientific knowledge, especially when a new species is involved," Hollenbeck said.

Scheel, who started his career studying "charismatic megafauna" such as lions and wild dogs in Africa, says he fell in love with the mysterious octopus while working at his first job in Alaska, in Prince William Sound.

There's lots to be fascinated by: Giant Pacific octopus can change colors and patterns, going from white to a deep bruised red, depending on stimuli. Everything their eight undulating arms touch, they taste. They live fast and die young, Scheel says, breeding quickly and dying between ages 3 and 5. While they evolved along an evolutionary path distant from humans researchers think they are intelligent: They've been documented mimicking other octopuses, solving mazes in lab tests and even opening jars.

Over the years the octopus lab at APU has hosted Dana, Clade, Inky and Ocho, some of whom were given to the university by fishermen who caught them as bycatch.

Both otherworldly and eerily familiar (their eyes, caretakers report, can appear to give searing looks of reproach) octopuses have a way of charming their caretakers.

Graduate student Matthew Perlin has fallen hard.

Perlin, who comes from Orange County, Calif., says he spends up to 50 hours a week in the APU octopus lab and knows his charges well.

Dean, the one who may be of the undiscovered species, is male and shyer, according to Perlin. He spends a lot of time peeping out of a pile of speckled rocks.

"He's still a baby," he said.

Khaleesi, named after a character in the "Game of Thrones" novels, is the bigger, older female. She moves like a drop of ink swelling in water and sucks the meat out of clams with a sharp, beak-like mouth.

Her tentacles give something like a hickey in seconds.

Scheel and his students are collecting more data from the intertidal zone of Prince William Sound beaches this week.

Then it's off to Australia, where Scheel is collaborating with a philosopher on a new frontier of research: octopus consciousness.

 

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

 

 

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