The Cephalopod Empire

The Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole Massachusetts is home to roughly 3000 Cephalopods, likely the largest population at any research laboratory. The Cephalopods provide unique experimental value to scientists who have been studying them for decades.


The Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, is home to roughly 3,000 cephalopods, likely the largest population at any research laboratory.

The cephalopods provide unique experimental value to scientists, who've been studying them for decades.

Here is the story.

We probably have the largest collection of cephalopods out of any research laboratory in the world, and we're growing extremely rapidly, which is sort of the nature of cephalopods.

We probably have I would guess on the upwards of around 2,000 or 3,000 cephalopods in our collection.

We're breeding them, and we're expanding and scaling up to support our various research communities.

So our program is very much like a startup.

You know, we're trying to get users to come back and use our animals, but our endgame is not for economic profit.

Our endgame is for knowledge and advancing our understanding of not only cephalopods but ourselves.

♪♪ My name is Bret Grasse.

I am the manager of cephalopod operations at the Marine Biological Laboratory.

So this is a new resource that's new to the MBL and new to a lot of research communities out there.

Previously, models like zebra fish, frog, mouse, et cetera have been utilized for decades and decades.

Cephalopods are sort of the new kids on the block.

We're really looking to try to promote this group of animals so that those scientists who have been working on the some model for decades may be able to ask the same questions of a different animal and see if they get different answers.

There's no other invertebrates on the planet that can do what these animals can do.

Not only do they have these immense abilities to change the color and texture of their skin, but when you look on a deeper level, they're very unique and have a ton of advantages that we haven't been able to look at using other models.

They've got three hearts, mini brains at the base of each of their arms capable of movements on their own, and abilities to edit their own RNA, very complex cognition, and so for all of those reasons, there's a lot of uses that cephalopods provide that other animals may not have been useful for.

So the five species candidates that we've selected, on average, their life-spans are about 6 months or less, and most are reproductively mature at around 3 or 4 months, so we can effectively breed these animals very rapidly through multiple generations in a short period of time and really get a lot of questions answered very quickly.

Because of their rapid metabolism, their sensitivity and their feeding cues and behavioral cues are unlike any other animal.

It's been kind of a slow road for the cephalopods to kind of make it to the larger research communities, and now through some trial and error, some research and development, we've been able to really advance our ability to not only effectively hold these animals but keep them very happy under our care.

Because we're sort of a startup operation here at the MBL, our day-to-day tasks are sort of all over the place.

I manage the program, and we have Taylor Sakmar, who's really on the ground floor doing a lot of the animal care, the maintenance, the moves.

For fish, you may need to sprinkle some flake food in once a day.

For cephalopods, some of these species we're feeding six times a day.

You can imagine that there is very drastic associated growth with that, so these animals are growing rapidly.

The basics are, you're always staring at these animals, how they're interacting.

Are they getting too crowded in their tanks?

And so we are able to watch their skin patterns, watch that communication and change sort of our animal care based on those observations.

The way we know a happy cephalopod is happy is just looking at different behavioral cues.

So let's say for the flamboyant cuttlefish, happy cephalopod for that would be settled down on the ground, and you can see them walking around, exploring their habitat, whereas our pyjama squid, happy cephalopod would be one buried in because since they're nocturnal, during the day, we just want to see them buried into that sand.

Every species is different, and it's that attention to detail and that focus that makes us successful when we're looking at our larger breeding program.

We have certain species that we can hold in large quantities all together, and that works really well because then they sort of breed with themselves.

They have their own courtship displays.

They can mate as they please.

And then there's other species that don't get along in large communities, so for some of those species, we need get creative.

One method we've played around with is to introduce a barrier in between two octopus in the same tank, and that barrier has holes in it at are large enough for the octopus to reach their arms through in order to effectively mate.

We really look at every species as unique, not only with their hatchling care but with their egg care.

Some eggs, when they're laid, are kind of left on their own.

Eggs like that don't really take a lot of care, so when we harvest those eggs, we can put them in a cradle, something that just has some sort of good water flow.

Certain species, like the flamboyant cuttlefish and octopus, will push jets of water over their eggs in order to promote oxygenation of their eggs and to prevent animals from settling on the outside of the egg surface, and so we do that with a soda-bottle incubator that I developed long ago at the Monterey Bay Aquarium about 7 or 8 years ago.

We have a bunch of scientists and researchers from all over the world that come to the Marine Biological Laboratory in order to use these types of resources we have available.

So a lot of our collaboration with our researchers is a lot of microscopy, a lot of embryology, a lot of genetic work with injections.

We're also creating innovative products in order to support the various scientific communities.

Like our IR dens to actually monitor egg laying.

It looks pitch-black, but if you look at it through infrared light, it completely disappears, so at night, we can have our pyjama squids going around, mating, laying eggs, and we can more effectively watch them and see what they're doing underneath those laying dens.

And we need to know when those eggs are laid just so we have a better idea of when that first cell division in the embryo occurs, and then we can actually get that egg over to the researchers in time.

We lovingly call our operations the cephalopod empire.

It's not saying that other people in other parts of the world shouldn't be doing cephalopod research.

The opposite, we want to encourage that growth, and we want to encourage the study of cephalopods, and that's because what we're really trying to do is build the personnel, the people around us, the people who are working with genetics, behavior, regeneration of limbs, and we can really rise together and learn more about these animals.