Flamboyant cuttlefish. Pygmy squid. Dumbo octopus. These cartoonish names belong to real animals, and you could see them live at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s new exhibit, opening April 12.
“Tentacles” will be the world’s largest, most diverse display of cephalopods—the suction-cupped, parrot-beaked, skin-changing group that includes octopuses, squid and cuttlefish. But the aquarium can’t guarantee which exact creatures will end up on display. During a behind-the-scenes tour last month, aquarist Alicia Bitondo said, “We won’t know which animals are in which tanks until a couple of weeks before the exhibit opens.” She paused. “Or the day before.”
This anxious uncertainty is due to the short lifespans typical of cephalopods. The exhibit itself, which is scheduled to close on Labor Day 2016, will outlive nearly all of its inhabitants. Continuous display of any given species would require ongoing collection from the wild, and most species are native to distant seas—a severe challenge to both logistics and sustainability.
Fortunately, there’s an alternative: grow them at home.
Bringing Up the Babies
The $3.5 million “Tentacles” is is the first exhibit since the Aquarium’s award-winning jelly displays to rely on constant laboratory culture of animals behind the scenes. Current eggs and hatchlings will be rotated through public display in the Egg Lab.
Some of these babies will eventually appear in grown-up exhibits, but others never will. For example, pygmy squid—fully grown at the size of your fingernail—oblige their keepers by laying eggs, but no one knows what to feed the minuscule hatchlings. And broadclub cuttlefish, each big enough to fill a carry-on suitcase, can at least be raised from hatching to 11 months—but not yet to full maturity.
For now, both pygmies and broadclubs still require collection from their home ranges in the Indo-Pacific. But that could change over the next couple of years. Monterey aquarists seem to have a way of coaxing reproduction from the most reluctant critters—as in the case of the deep-sea dumbo octopus.
Over the years since their discovery, dumbo octopuses have occasionally released unfertilized eggs in their death throes, but at the Aquarium two dumbo moms have now laid their eggs properly. These precious spheres, which may or may not be fertilized, are being kept in super-chilled, low-oxygen water to mimic the deep-sea environment. That means they can’t show up in the Egg Lab, but adult dumbos might make an appearance in a special deep-sea tank. Over the life of “Tentacles,” this tank could also house vampire squid, glass squid, or cock-eyed squid, species that have never before been on public display.
Struggling on Their Home Surf
Growing animals in the lab is one way to protect wild populations from over-harvesting. But are any cephalopods truly at risk? None are currently listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, the most comprehensive international database of conservation.
However, that’s largely because of missing information. Of the 73 cephalopods on the IUCN’s list, 59 are “data deficient,” which means we just don’t know enough to gauge how they’re doing. One species, the Australian giant cuttlefish, is listed as “near threatened”—that is, likely to be become endangered.
This somber prediction is largely driven by one particular population of giant cuttles, which has never recovered from overfishing in the 1990’s. It now faces habitat loss due to industrial waste and construction projects. “Tentacles” addresses these struggles, not through the species’ live display, but with an unusual aquarium that contains neither water nor animals. It’s a mechanical sculpture of cuttlefish in their altered environment, built by the artist Nemo Gould from found materials, including a boat motor, chandelier parts, shoe stretchers, egg slicers, and coffee pot lids. “I’ve been dying to use that boat motor for years,” he said.
Gould was commissioned by the Aquarium to create “three sculptures representing three species and three fairly specific threats.” The second sculpture is supposed to represent the threat of pollution to octopuses, a mandate that had the artist scratching his head at first. “How do you make a sculpture of chemicals?” he asked. In fact, little is known about chemical threats to wild octopus populations, although toxins such as mercury and crude oil can certainly do damage in the lab.
The final sculpture addresses overfishing of nautilus, the only living cephalopod with an external shell. Originally a defense against predation, these shells have sadly become its primary cause, as humans collect them for decorative purposes.
Gould’s sculptures provide a beautiful counterpoint to such destruction in the name of aesthetics. He harvests rusty junk and broken parts from scrap yards, waiting for the right project to transform them. When he got the call from the Aquarium, he said, “My supplies were brimming with what I needed.”
Circling Back to the Suckers
The Giant Pacific Octopus, GPO to its friends, has been one of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s most iconic exhibits since the refurbished cannery opened as a tourist attraction in 1984. At the time, the GPO was actually part of a whole “Octopus and Kin” gallery, where it kept company with two other local species, the red octopus and two-spot octopus. Aquarists had hoped to exhibit native squid as well, but they had to settle for cuttlefish from far-off seas. Nautilus, also non-native, rounded out the display.
“Ultimately, the mix of local and exotic species didn’t fit with our Habitats Path exhibit plan,” said Ken Peterson, the Aquarium’s communications director. “Now cephs are back, bigger and better than ever!”
An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the Aquarium is attempting to raise and exhibit giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama). Aquarists are actually working with the world’s second-largest cuttlefish, the broadclub cuttlefish (Sepia latimanus).