An as-yet undescribed species of octopus is just so gosh-darn cute that it may be named for its charms.
Michelle StarrScience editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Look at this little guy! Look at its chubby little face and its stubby little tentacles and its big wide eyes! If you know your octopodes, you might have recognised its little ear-flaps and body shape as characteristic of a family called Opisthoteuthidae.
Members of this family are more commonly known as "umbrella octopuses" for their unusual method of swimming (opening and closing like an umbrella). It contains Opisthoteuthis californiana, the flapjack octopus (because it flattens out like a pancake) and Grimpoteuthis spp, the dumbo octopus (for its little flappy ear-like fins).
The little unnamed ocky above is just like its cousins. It lives deep in the oceanic pelagic zone -- neither close to the surface nor the floor, but somewhere in the middle -- and has a hard time surviving at higher or lower depths.
It also swims in a similar fashion: It spreads its tentacles out, the webbing between acting as a sort of canopy, shooting water through its funnel for propulsion, while its ear-fins help steer or offer smoother, gentler momentum.
The honour of describing it will go to post-doctoral researcher Stephanie Bush of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Keeping the octopuses alive outside of their native environment is pretty tricky, and the institute doesn't currently have a live specimen in captivity. What it does have is some preserved specimens and a collection of eggs, which have been carefully incubating for over a year.
"As someone who is describing the species, you get to pick what the specific name is," Bush told Science Friday. "And one of the thoughts I had was making it Opisthoteuthis adorabilis, because they're really cute."
Relatively little is known of the species, although collected specimens date back to around 1990. Bush is having to dissect the preserved specimens to examine their digestive and reproductive systems to find out more about the octopus' anatomy and behaviour.
But, while it's difficult to provide a comfortable habitat for Opisthoteuthis, it's not impossible. The eggs in the institute's collection were laid by octopuses being temporarily kept to learn more about how they live.
To make the cephalopods comfortable, the researchers created a vertical tank filled with seawater with a low oxygen content. Red light was used to simulate the low amount of sunlight that reaches the octopus' habitat beneath the ocean, and the water was kept very cold to replicate the temperature. It was comfortable enough for the captured octopuses to breed.
The team hopes that the eggs will hatch, though octopus incubation periods can last years. The octopuses may be kept in similar enclosures so that the researchers may observe them as they grow.
"These animals are part of the greater ocean ecosystem," Bush said, "and in order to have a healthy, functioning ecosystem, we have to understand the ecology and behaviour of the individual species."