Almost 100 years before Darwin set sail for the Galapagos, Georg Wilhelm Steller made landfall in what is now Alaska. There, he was greeted with sun-edged mountains, windswept islands, and a host of species he’d never seen before. Steller is now credited with ‘discovering’ six species of bird and mammal many of which bear his name including the Steller’s sea cow (extinct), Steller sea lion, and Steller’s eider.
We grow up on these kinds of stories of exploration. It might be the science fiction of the Enterprise going boldly where no one has gone before, or the real-life explorations of Jacques Cousteau. But somewhere along the way, I think many of us begin to think the discoveries are farther out of reach. The human genome is mapped. We’ve landed on the moon…
What is left to discover?
Earlier this week a recently acquired octopus from our seawater well at the ASLC was introduced to the aquarium on the Discovery Pool countertop. This is a male frilled giant Pacific octopus, a genetic variant of the giant Pacific octopus complex that was recently described by Alaska Pacific University researchers Dr. David Scheel and graduate student Nathan Hollenbeck after studying numerous examples of these in Prince William Sound (Hollenbeck and Scheel 2017).
Little “Floyd” was found on February 17 in a shrimp trap we had in the ASLC seawater well. Compared to our other Giant Pacific octopuses, Floyd has smoother skin that includes a long, lateral fold along the midline of the mantle, two whitish spots in front of the eyes rather than one in GPOs, and the horn-like papillae above each eye are more flattened than in the larger species. He also doesn’t seem to get as red in color.
Frilled giant Pacific octopuses are still Enteroctopus dofleini and haven’t been named as a separate species at this time, but they are genetically different enough to justify inclusion as a member of a genetic complex.
David’s conviction that these are more widespread in coastal Alaska than just in PWS was confirmed by photos we shared with him of others held here over the years.
Taxonomy being what it is, there will likely be more that’s learned and described in the coming years. For instance, another octopus that Jared Guthridge, ASLC Aquarium Manager, found on a Bering Sea trawl with NMFS in 2012 was determined to be a third genetically distinct octopus based on a DNA sample we provided. Zhemchug lived here several years.
I think you’ll agree that it’s exciting to live in Alaska where significant new animal discoveries are made and environmental change isn’t just talk, but lived.
If you’re inspired by discovery and science, rational thought, comedians, and octopus–I highly recommend the podcast: Infinite Monkey Cage. Especially this episode “Oceans: What remains to be discovered”
Written by: Richard Hocking and Amy Bishop
Nathan Hollenbeck & David Scheel. 2017. Body Patterns of the Frilled Giant Pacific Octopus, a New Species of Octopus from Prince William Sound, AK. American Malacological Bulletin 35 (2): 134-144; doi: 10.4003/006.035.0206