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Once again Ferrebeekeeper plunges into the abyssal depths of the ocean seeking a bizarre and barely known cephalopod—the elbow squid.  Elbow squid, also colloquially known as “bigfin squid” are deep sea squid of the genus Magnapinna.  Although they have been known to science since at least 1907 when a juvenile specimen was found and categorized, the strange animals are a real enigma to scientists.  No adult specimens were known until the 1980s and only in the cotemporary era of widespread deep-sea robots were pictures of the living animals obtained.

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But WHAT pictures! These images were worth the wait:  of all Earth creatures which are not microbes, the elbow squid may well be the most unfamiliar and alien in appearance.  Indeed, I have seen plenty artist’s conceptions of extraterrestrial life and precious few looked as bizarre as the elbow squid.  The animals have extremely long tentacles which dangle at right angles from 10 upper arms (which project at right angles from the squid’s cylindrical body.  The visual impact of this crazy arrangement is even more dramatic than it sounds.

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Shell oil used a submersible robot to film a specimen hanging around their deep water oil platform “Perdido” (which is 200 miles offshore from Houston in the Gulf of Mexico) and the squid’s tentacles were reliably 9 to 10 meters (26-30 feet) long.  These animals are different from giant squid—but they are also giant squid.

So why on Earth do elbow squid have such long arms?  We simply do not know.  Some scientists speculate that it brushes along the ocean bottom gathering up sluggish meals with its long arms. Other mollusk theorists(?) think it is like a brittle starfish and lies on the bottom as the tentacles write around.  Yet another school believes the ten tentacles are for active predatory grabbing—the squid is like a fisherman with ten lassos.  Perhaps it combines these and other behaviors.  Other cephalopods are well known for being versatile and clever.

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I would love to tell you about the hopes and fears of this strange denizen of the deeps.  What animals prey on it (Sperm whales and elephant seals presumably, but what else?)?  What is its love life like?  How long do they live?  But we don’t even know what these things eat.  How it would fill out a Zoosk profile is particularly beyond our kin.  The elbow squid is at the tantalizing juncture between the known and the unknown.  Undoubtedly we will learn more, but for now we will just have to be content that we have seen them at all.

An Adult Female Blanket Octopus

“Blanket octopus” sounds like an endearing nursery game, but the blanket octopuses are actually pelagic hunters which have adapted to living in the ultra-competitive environment of the open ocean.  There are four species of blanket octopuses (Tremoctopus) which can be found ranging from the surface to medium depths of open tropical and subtropical seas worldwide.  Because they often live far from any land, some of the methods which other octopuses use to escape predators do not work very well for them.  Fortunately Blanket octopuses have adapted in their own unique bag of tricks.

An Adult Female Blanket Octopus

Blanket octopuses are named after the distinctive appearance of adult female octopuses which grow long transparent/translucent webs between their dorsal and dorsolateral arms.  Blanket octopuses use these webs as nets for hunting fish, but they can also unfurl and darken their nets in order to appear much larger than they actually are.  Since blanket octopuses do not produce ink and can not camouflage themselves as rocks, coral, or sand, they rely heavily on their blankets.  As a last resort they can jettison the blankets as a decoy and jet away while the confused predator attacks the highly visible membranes.

Blanket octopuses exhibit extreme sexual dimorphism.  Whereas the female octopus can grow up to 2 meters (6 feet) in length, the male octopus is puny and does not grown longer than a few centimeters (1 to 2 inches).  Males store their sperm in a modified quasi-sentient third right arm, known as a hectocotylus.  During mating this arm detaches itself and crawls into the female’s reproductive vent.  As soon as the hectocotylus is detached the male becomes unnecessary and dies.

Male Blanket Octopus

Tiny males and immature females do not have blankets, but they utilize another trick to protect themselves.  Because they hunt jellyfish and other hydrozoans, the little octopuses are immune to the potent venom of the Portuguese man o’war.  The octopuses tear off stinging tentacles from the man o’war and wield them in their tentacles like little whips to ward off predators.

An amazing illustration of a blanket octopus sheltering in a Portuguese man o’war’s tentacles

A very lovely photograph of an octopus kite by Nigel Bence

Ferrebeekeeper has written about actual flying squids which dart above the water waving their lateral fins to extend their gliding ability.  But real squid are not the only cephalopods that one sees in the skies–especially around springtime.  Two of the classical shapes for kites are squid & octopus shape.  The squid’s finned oblong shape, and the octopus’ round shape are perfect for balance and for catching the wind.  The dangling tentacles act perfectly as multiple tails. This spring has taken a cold gray turn—at least in New York, but while you are inside planning what to do during May, perhaps you should build some octopus and squid kites.  Here is a little gallery of images from different kite festivals and kite makers around the world.

A Commercially available Octopus kite/kit

Like squids and octopuses, none of the kites I had when growing up ever lasted long (well none of the ones I actually flew).  The beautiful range of mollusks suspended on the wind in the sky makes me wonder if I have any time to get out some dowels and crepe paper and build some more kites [sadly you do not have any such time—ed.].  As the soon as the  weather clears up again, I hope you enjoy some kite flying!

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

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