Archive for June, 2017

The Blue Ringed Octopus lives, or more accurately lurks, in the oceans around Australia.

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As shown here. (Image via http://www.cape-york-australia.com)

This is a phrase that should instantly raise red flags in your mind. ‘Lives in the Australian Ocean’ is one of those innocuous phrases that nonetheless warn of much pain, suffering and misery ahead, rather like ‘ ‘lets take this shortcut’, or ‘so I just had a few minor comments’, or ‘this resort is really off the beaten track, but worth it’. After all, what animals does one associate with the seas around Australia? Great White Sharks. Stonefish. The Sea-Wasp. Stingrays. Whatever the hell is was that ate Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1967, who disappeared whilst swimming, in the only case I know of where a country just ‘lost’ a Prime Minister.

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This was ruled ‘completely non-suspicious’ by his successor, Prime Minister Shark. 

Actually, we can dial back a bit. ‘Octopus’ itself is a term that is a red flag. Because Octopuses (and yes, it is Octopuses, or possibly Octopodes, but definitely not Octopi, whatever my spellcheck might say) are weird.

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“A Blue Ringed Octopus (from Thinglink.com). 

 

They can squeeze through ridiculously small spaces, can move out of water to both escape and find food, and are notorious escape artists. They show problem solving abilities, have been seen to use tools, play, learn from watching other octopuses, and might even have personalities. Their brains, too, are big for invertebrates (with around 160 million neurons – comparable to that of a dog) (Of course, Octopus intelligence probably varies hugely between species – Ed). What’s more, they might have double that number of neurons divided between their eight arms, meaning that each of their arms can act, to some degree, independently (severed octopus arms jerk away from unpleasant stimuli, whilst a severed human arm will just lie there, bleeding, and not do anything, whilst a lot of people start shouting and asking hard questions).

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Just because the octopus looks like it is from a drug induced hallucination, doesn’t mean you should act as though you’re in a drug induced hallucination.  (Image from Slate.com)

Whilst its unclear how intelligent Octopuses are, its still unsettling to think that an Octopus, more closely related to a snail or clam than us, might be a surprisingly deep thinker, and comparable to a rat, dog or reality TV show contestant. The mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) can even impersonate a wide array of marine organisms, using a combination of movements and shifting colours, although the Australian government is still reluctant to accept my theory that Mr Holt was, actually, a mimic octopus himself, who simply grew bored with politics and wished to return to the sea.

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From ‘TheLiquidEarth.org’, showing how a mimic octopus mimics a flatfish, lionfish and sea-snake. 

 

 

Fortunately for us mammals, one reason why we probably don’t need to fear legions of super-intelligent octopuses arising from the deep to claim the lands in the name of their dark Gods is that they have very short lifespans and die after matingif they are not eaten by their mate first.

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“At least no one is getting stabbed with a penis this time”

Idiosepius pygmaeus, for example, only lives eighty days, whilst the relatively long lived Giant Pacific Octopus will still only last a couple of years. After mating, males soon lose appetite, control of their body movements, and show skin lesions as their immune systems shut down. Females lay their eggs and then guard them, not eating. To sustain this, they start to metabolise their own bodies for food, and starve to death as the eggs hatch. (Its likely this is down to  two reasons: firstly more of an octopus’ offspring are likely to survive if she guards the one clutch of eggs she lays, rather than laying several, and secondly octopuses have evolved to grow and reach maturity quickly, rather than having a slower paced, longer lifespan).

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Live fast, die young and leave a crazy corpse. (Image from Pbs.com)

This short lifespan, combined with the fact octopuses generally don’t exhibit much, if anything, in the way of social behaviours outside mating (social behaviour requires a certain degree of intelligence) might explain why octopus intelligence isn’t more obvious, and/or why we have not been enslaved by the Octopus-people to build vast temples to their hideous rulers.

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Unless, of course, this entire entry is being written by a mimic octopus to lull you into a false sense of superiority. 

 

 

However, even for an octopus that lurks in the oceans around Australia, the Blue Ringed Octopus is actually much worse than you might think. Consisting of at least ten species, all the octopuses in the genus Hapalochlaena are relatively small; reaching at most perhaps twenty centimetres long with some barely reaching a quarter of that, and weighing less than a hundred grams. By all accounts, they are somewhat docile and shy animals, spending most of their time hiding in burrows. They feed on small crabs, shrimp and fish and like many cephalopods can shift their colours to better blend in with their surroundings. Defying stereotypes, no species of Blue-Ringed Octopus can shoot ink. This makes them potentially good exhibits for aquariums. What makes them slightly less good exhibits is that they are lethally toxic and by far the most dangerous octopus to humans; with the average Hapalochlaena lunulata (Greater Blue Ringed)  octopus supposedly having enough venom to kill at least twenty six people.

In fairness, they do give some warning by suddenly flashing up to sixty brilliantly bright blue rings all over their bodies, showing they are prepared to bite if a predator or unlucky human gets too close. This effect is created by rings of ‘iridophores’ – stacked plates of guanine – that due to their structure reflect bright blue light in all directions. When the octopus is startled, it expands some muscles and contracts others to reveal the brilliant ring. To enhance the contrast further the octopus can generate dark rings around and within each ring using chromatophores – cells containing dark pigment.

(Why blue light? Well, blue light is the most ‘visible’ type of light underwater, with red light absorbed the easiest. Therefore, most marine organisms will be most sensitive to blue light. It has also been speculated that these flashing displays play a role during mating. Ed.)

And then, if you ignore the suddenly flashing octopus – it will bite you.

The good news is that the sting itself is almost painless.

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“That’s good – wait a minute, this blog never has good news unless it is followed by much worse news”.

The bad news is that the venom includes, amongst other things, tetrodotoxin – which we last saw when this blog attempted to open a sushi restaurant. In fact, just like the pufferfish, it isn’t the octopus itself which produces the toxin, but rather bacteria living within its salivary ducts.

Tetrodotoxin blocks sodium channels, has no antidote and is around 1200 more times more powerful than cyanide, as it basically blocks information from travelling down the nervous system and reaching the muscles, resulting in paralysis. This includes the muscles used in breathing, which top doctors suggest are the worst muscles to have paralysed for any length of time. Other symptoms of being bitten include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, numbness, muscle weakness and hazy vision, sometimes leading to blindness. These symptoms, along with paralysis, are not good anywhere, but especially not when you’re swimming in the sea, according to those same top doctors.

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Not pictured: A good place to be suddenly unable to breath

This can happen within ten minutes of being bitten, and your only hope is to be hooked onto an artificial ventilator, so you can keep breathing whilst your body breaks down the poison.

 

Rather horribly, just like with pufferfish poisoning, you may be conscious – and indeed almost lucid – right up until the point of death.

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There are actually probably easier ways to meet attractive lifguards, for starters.