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Aquarium Exhibit Opens Door for Octopus Naming

Credit Krista Almanzan
MBARI's Stephanie Bush stands at the entrance of the Tentacles exhibit.

Stephanie Bush weaves through the crowd at the new Tentacles exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, walking passed tanks filled with nautiluses, squids and octopuses.

She’s headed for a dark corner where people have gathered around a tall column shaped tank.  “The deep sea tank is where there’s the big crowd,” she says as she gets closer.   

Bush is not your average visitor.  She’s a post-doctoral researcher at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).  For as long as this exhibit runs, her job is to keep this tank deep sea tank filled.  Right now it has two small octopuses “So you can see one of them sitting on the rock right now,” she says peering inside.

The octopus’s eight legs are webbed, so it sits on the rock splayed out looking a bit like an open umbrella. “They actually have a sign down there that says flapjack octopus, Opisthoteuthis sp.”

Scientific names start with the genus followed by the species.  “For humans its Homo sapians, so Homo is the genus name and sapiens is the species name,” she explains.

When a species is unknown, that’s noted with a sp after the genus name.   That’s the case with this octopus.  Even though Bush estimates marine biologists at MBARI have seen it on their deep sea dives in the Monterey Bay for the past 25 years, no one has ever done the research required to name it.

“It just takes the right person to be interested in following down that path,” says Bush.

And it takes the right moment. “If the Aquarium wasn’t having this exhibit right now.  We wouldn’t be working on these animals, so I wouldn’t be working on the taxonomy, so there are all these dominos that have to be in alignment for these things to happen,” says Bush.

Taxonomy is the science of describing the animal, finding where it fits in among other species and naming it.  It may sound simple, but it can take years of work that includes everything from testing DNA to confirm the species hasn’t been named to making note of all the animal’s small details, like how many suckers each arm has and how far apart.

And since Bush doesn’t specialize in taxonomy she’ll have to work with someone who does, like Mike Vecchione, Director of NOAA’s National Systematics Lab in Washington D.C.  The lab specializes in this type of research.

He says while taxonomy is not a popular area of science, it’s critical because when animals remain unnamed it slows research.

“Well it would make it more confusing for other people to understand what I’m talking about because there could be more than one species that don’t have a species name yet, so they could be called sp also, so it’s makes the knowledge that I’m trying to put out a little fuzzier actually,” says Vecchione.

He’s known about this particular octopus at the Aquarium for several years.  He’s glad Bush plans to describe it and says other people should be too.

“Most people get really excited about NASA’s latest announcement about moons around Saturn and things like that.  But we know very little about what’s on our own planet particularly in the deep sea,” says Vecchione.

Behind the exhibit at the Aquarium, Stephanie Bush walks through a black curtain to a second tank holding four more of the octopuses.  A generator running in the background keeps the water deep sea cold.  She says understanding these octopuses is just one more key to understanding how ocean functions properly.

“We need to know that because we’re effecting the ocean faster than what we are learning about it in some ways.  So all of these opportunities to learn anything about these animals should be taken,” says Bush.

If DNA testing shows the octopus has not already been described, as Bush and Vecchione believe, Bush will get to name the octopus species.  Her research will take about two years to complete. 

Krista joined KAZU in 2007. She is an award winning journalist with more than a decade of broadcast experience. Her stories have won regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and honors from the Northern California Radio and Television News Directors Association. Prior to working at KAZU, Krista reported in Sacramento for Capital Public Radio and at television stations in Iowa. Like KAZU listeners, Krista appreciates the in-depth, long form stories that are unique to public radio. She's pleased to continue that tradition in the Monterey Bay Area.