This east Pacific red octopus is in the same family as squid, cuttlefish — and kraken. (UW Laboratory of Comparative Systems Neuroscience Photo)
With Seattle Kraken hockey franchise making its NHL debut Tuesday, a lot of people have cephalopods on their mind.
That includes David Gire, an octopus researcher and neuroscientist at the University of Washington who also happens to play hockey.
“The Kraken really did a great job branding their team,” Gire told GeekWire on Monday.
David Gire. (University of Washington Photo)
And like the kraken, they are elusive. The first giant squid was only first filmed in its deep sea habitat in 2013. A specimen was shipped on ice from Alaska to the University of Washington in 2002. And nobody has been known to see one in Pacific Northwest waters, said Gire — at least to his knowledge.
So to understand giant squid, or kraken, it’s best to look at their more accessible cousins.
Gire studies creatures such as the giant Pacific octopus, which typically reaches 16 feet across at maturity and is found throughout the waters of Puget Sound.
Given his love for hockey, Gire can discern similarities with the kraken and the sport that few others can. The arms of the beast are key, he said. It’s where most of the brain is, with little ganglia (collection of neurons) that are located behind each sucker in the arm.
“It turns out the ganglia actually operate kind of semi-autonomously, so they’re controlling the local movement of the arm and they’re also sensing the stuff that’s around the arm,” Gire said. “They can smell, taste, and touch.”
And that’s similar to how a hockey team operates, said Gire, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Psychology.
“All these ganglia need to work together to control the arm, in a similar manner in which you could imagine a good hockey team would have to work together, where there are six independent people on the ice, all trying to work together to get to a goal,” he said. “Similar to the octopus arm, they’re going to coordinate their movements with each other. But they’re also all able to make their own decisions.”
If a hockey player is like a ganglion, a mini-brain, and the team is like an octopus arm — what about the coach?
“There’s no direct communication from the coach to a player during the game, it’s all kind of a low bandwidth indirect guidance to the team,” said Gire. “And that’s similar to how the octopus brain would interact with the arms.”
Gire explained that the central brain of an octopus has few connections to the arms, enabling only general guidance, such as which general direction to go in. “And so this kind of emergent pattern of a successful hockey team would look a lot like the emergent pattern of a coordinated cephalopod,” he said.
The Seattle Kraken sweater. (Seattle Kraken Image)
Gire appreciates that the Kraken have brought his favorite creatures a brief moment of fame. And he loves hockey.
As kids, Gire and his brothers participated in a contest to name the new San Jose hockey team. They entered the name of their soccer team, the Sharks, winning the contest along with hundreds of other kids who chose the same name. “We got to visit the guy who ran the team and meet some of the players. It was pretty cool. So it really got me into hockey,” Gire said. And he’s been playing ever since. He’s looking forward to attending a Sharks-Kraken game in the future.
GeekWire: How does the octopus hunt?
David Gire: We’ve done a lot of work on how they do prey capture in the dark, because a lot of the local species do most of their hunting at night. And so what we found was that it seems like the the suckers will kind of initiate the attack on prey.
The octopuses also can can kind of coordinate their movement to approach, for example a fast moving shrimp, in a way that doesn’t scare it away. So they know it’s there, but they can’t see it, and yet they are able to move their arms kind of skillfully to surround it and eventually eat it.
One of the things that we study is just how the arms can coordinate so well when they’re actually operating as these kind of like semi-autonomous little brains that are all coordinating with each other without real direct, exact control of what each is doing.
Gire collects octopus specimens for research and then later releases them back into Puget Sound. (UW Photo)
GW: Why study the octopus mind? You liken it to an emergent system, in which the properties of the whole emerge from the parts.
Gire: I think it’s very similar to how our brains actually work…I think that you have this emergent pattern where if you have a lot of little semi-intelligent brains [octopus ganglia] interacting with each other, you can generate a much more complex behavior out of the whole system. I don’t think you would be able to put an electrode into an octopus and say that’s where it’s making its decision. And the disadvantage for us, when we study vertebrates like humans, is that all that kind of interesting chaos is happening inside the skull, where it’s really hard to see. But with the octopus, with two thirds of its neurons in its arms, the interesting chaos of the interactions between neural networks is happening out where you can see it [measure it with electrodes]. And so, they’re a really cool animal to study in that that sense.
What do you think it’s like being an octopus?
Gire: It’s one of one of those questions we like asking because it’s really makes you think about what it would be like to not be able to directly control your body. When I was talking about the distributed brain of the octopus, a colleague in the department who studies human vision said that if you want to think about what it would be like to be an octopus, think about the people who have a split brain. They [physicians] section the corpus callosum [which connects the two brain hemispheres], usually because of intractable epilepsy. And when they do that the two sides of the brain actually operate independently. So you almost have what the philosophers and philosophers of science might call actual split consciousness.
So octopuses have a divided consciousness?
Gire: There’s cognitive studies on people with this condition where it looks like there’s one personality and approach on one side of the brain and another on the other side. They are processing different kinds of information. Extend a human split brain out thousands of times, and you’re probably getting a little closer to what their world might be like.
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Are cephalopods becoming more common worldwide because of climate change and ecosystem changes, as one study suggests?
Gire: I don’t think there’s a real definite way for us to know. But the thing that cephalopods have going for them is that they have a short generation time and they produce thousands of offspring. If you wanted to create an animal that could adapt quickly to a new environment, cephalopods are a good species for that. All of these offspring are going to have genetic variability to them, and so you can have some offspring that might have some kind of polymorphism [genetic change] to let them survive in a slightly changed environment. And so the population might just shift towards those guys. They are able to adapt quickly to environments and so that’s probably what would enable them to thrive as things change.
Other researchers have suggested that the jumbo Humboldt squid — also known as the red devil — is becoming more common in Pacific Northwest waters. Have you observed that?
Gire: As global warming has been progressing, unfortunately the range in which the Humboldts can operate starts to expand. I say unfortunately because these schools, when they come into an ecosystem, they’ll just eat everything.
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They go up and down the east coast of California and down to Mexico, but as water temperatures change you can imagine they’ll start expanding northward, which is not so great. I haven’t heard of anything in the areas that we study, but I wouldn’t be surprised if their range is starting to expand.
Tell us about the jumbo squid.
Gire: They have this really intense color display that they flash at each other. They’re always doing this in these giant schools. I’m not sure if anyone really understands what makes them do it. I think it’s a form of communication. The colors are just dramatic, it almost looks like they are fluorescent, it can span the range of colors.
What makes them so terrifying as a denizen of the deep is that they operate in these massive schools. You have thousands of individuals and this one giant group that travels together, and then during the day they go deep down in the ocean. And then at night they come up to the surface, kind of right out of a horror movie. They’re individually about the size of a human. Imagine a thousand voracious creatures, similar in size to a person, surrounding a boat and thrashing about in the water.
Will these squid attack divers?
Gire: Not that I’ve heard of…it’s not really in the diving lore.
How are octopuses different than squid?
Gire: They kind of started with the same toolbox, probably in some ancestral nautilus type thing. But then as they diversified and entered these ecological niches, they started to obtain their own kind of personality and traits that that really set them apart. The octopus, because it’s living on the ocean floor, uses camouflage to blend into its environment and prevent itself from being eaten by pretty much everything else in the ocean that really would like to eat it.
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Squids are out in the open ocean where they can do some camouflaging, maybe with tracking to look lighter at the bottom and darker at the top. But they mainly are using this really extensive chromatophore [colored cell] system to communicate with each other. If one were more interested in rapid visual processing or social communication through visual display, studying the squid would be much better. But their arms have a very different level of complexity than the octopus, they seem to do much more simple motor control.
Do we know what squid are saying to each other with their color displays?
Gire: It’s really some of the squid and cuttlefish, they just have these amazing displays. They must be sending some kind of message to each other, but it’s hard to decode, probably also because they’re in these huge groups. It’s hard to know who’s talking to who.
And the giant Pacific octopus, what makes it different?
Gire: The giant Pacific octopus is very different than the Humboldt squid. It tends to live alone for pretty much its entire life, except to reproduce. They grow to be very big. The biggest ones that people have recorded were in the realm of a couple hundred kilograms, bigger than a person. They can grow to have arms that can span across a medium sized room, several meters across. They’re this giant species that evolved in the deep ocean, but then they radiated out and now live all around the Puget Sound.
Around where we study them, which is up at Friday Harbor Labs in the San Juan Islands, divers find them all the time. You can tell when you found where one lives because they have a little cave that they make into their house, and they’ll live in that for their whole life and then just go out and forage for food. But then they’re really messy eaters, so they just leave a pile of garbage basically in front of their house. If you’re diving, you know you’ve found a giant Pacific octopus den if you see a bunch of empty shells of crabs and shellfish just sitting in a pile next to a hole in the rock.
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