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Eretria was an Ionian city-state of ancient Greece.  The Eretrians were located right across a narrow body of water from Athens and they were generally staunch allies of Athens.  They were also eager traders and merchants…and here is one of their coins.  This is a silver didrachm of Eretria featuring a very beautiful Octopus.  It dates from the early 4th century BC.

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The opposite side of the coin (I can’t quite tell which side is “heads” and which is “tails”) features a cow scratching its face with its back hoof.  I would love to tell you more about this evocative imagery but, aside from the obvious connotations of maritime and agricultural prowess, I am at a loss.  We will have to appreciate these coins as mysterious little works of silver sculpture unless a passing numismatist or classical scholar drops by in the comments and explains what is going on.  The lifelike style of the coin does give one occasion to reflect on how busy and stilted modern American coins are.  I have a feeling that two and a half millennia from now, nobody is going to be blogging about the Indiana quarter (unless they are fruitlessly wondering what the hell it is even supposed to be).

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A quick post today from the bottom of the ocean where this unknown octopus species was just found by an unmanned robot probe. The endearing cephalopod was photographed by Deep Discoverer, a robot submarine which launches from the NOAA Ship “Okeanos Explorer” a federally funded research vessel. Since 2008, the Okeanos Explorer has been travelling the world’s oceans exploring and mapping unknown parts of the underwater world. The octopus was photographed on a barren ledge of rock 4,290 meters beneath the surface (just off the northeast coast of Hawaii). The octopus appears to have a complete lack of chromatophores—special pigment-containing cells which cephalopods manipulate in order to change colors—so it appears ghostly and transparent. Here is hoping we learn more about this amazing underwater creature!

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It’s time for a belated Valentine’s Day Post (or maybe this is actually an outright Lupercalia post). The Seattle Aquarium has an unusual annual Valentines’ Day tradition of sponsoring blind dates for their resident octopuses. Sometimes the octopuses ignore each other or even quarrel, but other times throwing octopus strangers of opposite genders into a tank together results in multi-armed passion—a special treat for the aquarium visitors (to say nothing of the octopuses)  This year the aquarium has (or had) a large mature male Pacific giant octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) affectionately nicknamed “Kong” who weighs about 70 pounds. Divers set out looking for potential girlfriends for Kong for Valentine’s Day, but the largest females they could find (um, capture) were all under 40 pounds.

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This was a problem. It was widely feared that Kong might react badly to these undersized females and just straight out eat them. Mating is the final act for giant Pacific octopuses. They are semelparous (their lives end after a single reproductive event). After mating, females lay between 20,000 and 100,000 eggs which they tenderly nurture and care for as they starve to death. Males develop white lesions on their body and wander absent-mindedly into the open where they are swiftly devoured by predators.

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Pacific giant octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) with human diver

Kong is approaching this final stage of his life, but his keepers could not find a worthy adult female octopus for him to consummate his life with…so they let him go. He went back to the ocean to look for love and death on his own.  Good luck out there Kong, you handsome devilfish! Let’s hope it was all worth it.

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This week’s big science news is that researchers have finally sequenced the gene for a cephalopod– the California two-spot octopus, Octopus bimaculoides. Geneticists and molecular biologists from the University of Chicago and Berkley worked together to unravel the entire gene—which turned out to be nearly as large as the human genome and did not contain any mass data duplication (which some vertebrate-centric scientists had thought might account for the size and complexity). To quote Business Insider, “The work will allow scientists to study the genetic factors that give way to the octopus’ odd physical traits, and may reveal novel insights not only about the unique biology of cephalopods, but also about the evolution of traits that give rise to a complex nervous system and adaptive camouflage.”

An octopus solving a puzzle

An octopus solving a puzzle

There are already some fascinating initial discoveries from the octopus gene sequence data. Not surprisingly, the scientists discovered completely unique genomic sequences for reflectins (which allow the octopus to change color instantly). Even more intriguingly, the researchers discovered a huge suffusion of protocadherins—which facilitate the interaction between neurons. Octopus seem to have many more of these neural development genes than expected–and indeed the eight legged sea creatures have twice as many protocadherins as more familiar mammalian creatures like humans. However the majority of the data requires additional study. Scientists also hope to contextualize the somewhat abstract genes by sequencing other cephalopods (particularly cuttlefish—which a different team is working on).

Why is this octopus wearing a hat? I don't get it.

Why is this octopus wearing a hat? I don’t get it.

Unfortunately I am not a geneticist and the niceties of jumping genes are somewhat lost on me. I am however greatly interested in finding out more about the biology and evolutionary history of cephalopods. This class of organisms has attained a shockingly high degree of intelligence through a very different evolutionary path than the most intelligent vertebrates (like primates, proboscideans, cetaceans, and parrots). The clever mollusks are capable of solving difficult puzzles in unexpected ways and their donut shaped brains have long perplexed and intrigued neurologists. Perhaps further details of their genetic makeup will yield the seed for tomorrow’s transgenically created superbrains! Barring that, it would be good to understand the mechanisms of diverse neural systems and grasp more about the development of these beautiful yet unfamiliar creatures.

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The Demon and the Sylphs (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

The Demon and the Sylphs (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Yet another summer day has ineluctably slipped through my fingers.  What with work, friends, art, and the great human endeavor there was no time to find out about crab-eating seals or exoplanets for today’s post.  Fortunately I have my little book of fun sketches for such occasions (for those of you who just walked in, this is the small sketchbook I carry around and sketch in during downtime like the subway or lunch).  Above is my favorite of the three selected sketches for today.  I imagine it as being the dramatic climax of an unknown ballet where a tribe of sylphs confront the underworld demon-god and wage a tremendous dance battle with him on behalf of their upstanding moral principles (actually I think that might be an actual ballet).  In the real world, the pink and blue and yellow all blend together more seamlessly, but I guess I am stuck with what my camera can manage under halogen light.

Sulawesi Shipwreck (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Sulawesi Shipwreck (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

In the second picture a shipwreck at the bottom of the Indian Ocean is the scene for wayang theater, written edicts, and ghostly machinations.  It seems like the picture might be about the Dutch East India Company or some other Indonesian colonial enterprise.  At any rate, the great flesh colored sawfish who appeared from nowhere steals the scene from the human agencies (although the brain coral seems to also be in the know).

Cityscape (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, Colored pencil and ink)

Cityscape (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, Colored pencil and ink)

Finally I included a geometric doodle of a colorful cityscape.  I sketched this on the train after a frustrating day of work.  My colleague was out that day, so I spent the entire workday trying to answer two to six confusing phone calls every minute for hours on end.  I was thoroughly frustrated with New York and cursing the entire beastly expensive overrated mess when I got on a train car which had a foul smelling beggar in it.  Because of the smell, the train car was unusually empty at rush hour and I opted to remain on it so I could I could sit down and draw.  I sketched away furiously as the car stopped underground and lingered forever in a tunnel beneath the East River.  The beggar got off in Brooklyn Heights and I kept sketching, but I was still angry at everything.  When I was almost home (which is near the end of the 2 line) the woman who had been silently riding next to me the whole time quietly said ‘you are a great artist” which really turned around the bad day.  I am not sure the picture merits such a statement, but the comment made me feel great and stood as a powerful reminder of what a large effect small actions and statements can have.  I hope that kindly stranger is reading my blog so I can thank her properly for her words.  They meant a lot to me.

Crochet Squid (by Ruby Submarine from Craftsy)

Crochet Squid (by Ruby Submarine from Craftsy)

It has been a long time since we had a mollusk post, so today let’s enjoy a post about squid, octopuses, and extinct nautiloids…and knitting. Apparently the characteristic tubes and whorls formed by knitting can be easily adapted to produce lovely tentacled plush characters. Sadly, I am a terrible knitter (or, more accurately, not a knitter) but I appreciate the art. Also, as a toy maker I have a professional interest in these plush toys, even if they are not necessarily in my own area of specialty.

Knitted Nautiloid by cobrajs (Deviantart)

Knitted Nautiloid
by cobrajs (Deviantart)

Knitted Ammonite and Orthocone (from Knitty.com)

Knitted Ammonite and Orthocone (from Knitty.com)

An exceptionally pretty nautiloid (by Chantal)

An exceptionally pretty nautiloid (by Chantal)

Naughty Nautiloid for Knitwits (Knitty.com)

Naughty Nautiloid for Knitwits (Knitty.com)

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Under the sea (by onblueberryhill)

Under the sea (by onblueberryhill)

Look at how cute the squids and extinct cephalopods are. Some of these designs are truly ingenious, like the red squid at the top, or the belemnites immediately below. I wish I had had some of these as a child to pair with my beloved dinosaur stuffed animals and toys. When I was young, I was unhappy that it was so difficult to get toys of prehistoric ocean creatures other than plesiosaurs (and frankly even those were hard to come by). Even if it is still hard to get mass-produced orthocones and ammonites, these beautiful hand-made pieces certainly help fill the gap. Now your plush ichthyosaur will have something to predate! Or, if your toy collection is more modern, you will have the right character for stinging the Australian PM.

Wooly Belemnites (Found on juniorgeo.co.uk)

Wooly Belemnites (Found on juniorgeo.co.uk)

Ollie the Octopus (Lion Brand® Vanna's Choice® Baby Pattern)

Ollie the Octopus
(Lion Brand® Vanna’s Choice® Baby
Pattern)

knit Octopus (found on craftster.org)

knit Octopus (found on craftster.org)

Felted Squiddy by Denise (from "knitting")

Felted Squiddy by Denise (from “knitting”)

felted squid flash drive (NifNaks)

felted squid flash drive (NifNaks)

I wish I could tell you more about how these are made and where you could get the patterns, but it seems like a certain expertise in the textile arts is required. I only know the difference between what is felted and what is knitted. My mother, however, has a lovely yarn store in Parkersburg, West Virginia and she is an expert at every aspect of knitting, crocheting, weaving, and sewing. I am sure she could explain to you how to make any of these creatures (or any other lovable knitted or felted animal toys)…provided you bought the yarn from her store.

Ax Wielding Octopus (Hiné Mizushima, ca. present, needle-felted sculpture)

Ax Wielding Octopus (Hiné Mizushima, ca. present, needle-felted sculpture)

Needle-felted Bobtail Squid by crocodiledreams

Needle-felted Bobtail Squid by crocodiledreams

Aren’t these all adorable.  They make me want to get back into toy making and create “My Little Squiddy.”

Too late...here are the "My Little Cephalopod" series of "My Little Pony" Themed Squid Plushies (from Laughing Squid)

Too late…here are the “My Little Cephalopod” series of “My Little Pony” Themed Squid Plushies (from Laughing Squid)

 

A New Species of Flapjack Octopus (photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

A New Species of Flapjack Octopus (photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

Happy news from the ocean depths: marine biologists have discovered an endearingly cute deep sea octopus in the cold deep ocean waters off the continental shelf of California. The newfound octopus is about the size of a fist and looks a lot like the ghosts from Pac-man. The creatures’ default color seems to be a rich orange-pink. It has big soulful black eyes and little fins atop its head which look like cartoon cat ears.

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Stephanie Bush, an octopus scientist (!!!) from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute has spent nearly a year studying the new octopus which she classifies as belonging to the “flapjack” octopuses (a family of animals which sound like they merit additional attention from Ferrebeekeeper). The genus of the octopus is thus pre-established as “Opisthoteuthis” but she is toying with “adorabilis” as a species name (which sounds like a wise choice in the internet era).

So far very little is known about these cute mollusks which live in coastal Pacific waters at depths between 200 and 600 meters. Every one of the dozen specimens thus far found has been female. According to Bush, “They spend most of their time on the bottom, sitting on the sediment, but they need to move around to find food, [&] mates.” I am curious what the male octopuses are like. I presume they are pink and adorable as well, but sexual dimorphism is not unknown among cephalopods. Also, how widespread are these animals? Do they live beyond the California coast?

We need to know so much more. Dr. Bush needs to get back to work, and we are definitely going to need more pictures!

Inku-turso (drawing from minnasundberg.fi)

Inku-turso (drawing from minnasundberg.fi)

In Finnish mythology, Iku-Turso was a malevolent ocean deity who took the form a terrible sea monster. Due to the vagaries of language, it is unclear whether he (?) had the shape of a colossal walrus or a giant terrible inkfish (i.e. an octopus).  Contemporary Finnish artists apparently see no reason he can’t be both and the internet has some amazing and disturbing images of the dark god of the depths.

Iku Turso (art by Nuctameron)

Iku Turso (art by Nuctameron)

Not only was Iku-Turso’s appearance formidable, but he seemingly had powerful and weird magic—a sort of divine antagonistic surrealist. The god makes a typically bizarre appearance in the Kalevala, the great mythological epic of the Finns (which Ferrebeekeeper has already visited—to tell the dark story of Lemminkäinen and the Swan of Tuonela).  In the second canto, the god rises from the depths and burns a huge hay stack.  From the cinders grows an oak so large that it threatens to blot out the sun and moon—and so the tree must be cut down.  Later in the epic, Inku-Turso is enlisted by the goddess of the North (the witch Louhi) to prevent the theft of the powerful magical artifact Sampo.  However one of the sorcerers seeking Sampo was too powerful for even a bizarre walrus/octopus sea god to stop.  Poor Inku-Tursu ended up magically cursed to haunt the bottom of the ocean.

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The dark god has made few appearances since then, but I imagine a Finnish epic about exploring the abyssal plains would be exceedingly exciting!  In fact that sounds great for all sorts of reasons! Could some of you Finnish bards get busy and make it happen?

Vitreledonella richardi (photo by Underseahunter Group)

Vitreledonella richardi (photo by Underseahunter Group)

Today we have a special (but largely visual) treat: the pelagic octopus Vitrelladonella richardi. This cephalopod is “transparent, gelatinous, and almost colorless.”  Since they are not only transparent but also live in the deeper part of pelagic zone of the ocean (the portion which is near to neither the top nor the bottom) they are rarely seen and little is known about them.  The females are ovoviviparous and broods her eggs within her body.  Both genders are strongly bioluminescent and use light for hunting, communicating, and hiding (by mimicking the faint light from the surface they can become even more invisible).   Even if we don’t know a huge amount about these octopuses, we are privileged to have some amazing photographs of them, thanks to the new generation of submersibles and submersible drones, which are exploring the pelagic regions of the ocean.  Look at how exquisite and alien these octopuses appear!  It’s hard to believe we share the planet with such strange animals…

Vitreledonella richardi (photo by Underseahunter Group)

Vitreledonella richardi (photo by Underseahunter Group)

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Our current form—bipedal & prone to toppling, with two limited manipulator arms—always struck me as less functional than it could be. If I were making sentient beings, I would first try something else. I can therefore never understand why robot makers are always trying to copy the humanoid template and create androids. Fortunately there are other robotics experts who are willing to consider more versatile shapes for the next generation of robots. Consider this robot octopus, manufactured by a Greek team.

 

The robo-octopus can swim using traditional octopus jet propulsion (particularly effective because of the elastic webs between its tentacles). It can also crawl along the ocean bottom with its many arms and utilize its synthetic tentacles to carry or manipulate multiple objects.

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So far the robo-octopus is merely an experimental plaything and it has all the awkwardness of some first generation Pre-Cambrian jellyfish, but it is hard not to see immense potential in that adaptable be-tentacled shape. Imagine combining it with a supercomputer and giving it wrap-around artificial eyes. What a magnificent robot that would be!  Indeed, maybe we could utilize such a shape for transhuman cyborgs of the future.  Humans could swim around in three dimensions and be free of all this right-leg/left-leg falling down business!

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