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Grief on the Reef

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An Alien Intelligence by Sarah Curran Ragan

Posted on March 22, 2019 at 12:00 AM

The octopus is curious, crafty and clever and their intriguing behaviour is changing the way we think.

Looking down to the shallow sea grass beds, it was hard to focus. Then I saw it, almost impossible to see, a tiny pygmy octopus. It hid shyly behind a rock eyeing me suspiciously. Hovering above it, with surprise I realised I was also being intently studied.

Puzzles Masters

There are 300 species of octopus around the world. In Sulawesi, at the centre of their diversity, two stand out as octopus celebrities; the wunderpus (Wunderpus photogenicus) and the mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus). Both were first found in the rich seas of Sulawesi, are well known for their remarkable shape changing abilities and bizarre mimicking of other species.

Some years back another Sulawesi octopus made the news; the coconut stealing octopus. It is the first case of tool use in invertebrates. Octopuses are an intriguing group. They have a reputation for being intelligent, almost mythically so. Scientists have long known they can solve complex puzzles, navigate through mazes, are masters of disguise and more recently have found they accurately mimic other species.

Some go further to say they have personalities even engaging in play. They do things, which normally; we would only expect vertebrates to do.

Masters of disguise

Research, on the so-called mimic octopus, has revealed some intriguing behaviour opening further questions about invertebrate learning and behaviour. Undescribed until 1998, the mimic remains something of a mystery to science. It is a showcase for one of nature’s most remarkable abilities. Here is an animal that can accurately impersonate flatfish, lionfish, mantis shrimp and sea snakes, amongst others, to deceive potential predators.

Not only does it change its colour patterns and shape, it also adopts a good impersonation of movement, such as the undulating swims along the seabed for the flatfish mimicry. The amazing thing about this behaviour, is that mimics have evolved a defence that relies on predators seeing them rather than not seeing them, unlike their relatives who use camouflage to hide.

Perhaps most intriguing, the mimic octopus presents what it considers the greatest threat to a potential predator. So when attacked by damselfish, it mimics the banded sea snake, a known predator of damselfish. But is such behaviour inherited or learned and how does it decide what to mimic? No one yet knows how mimic octopuses choose to perform one behaviour over another, and the full repertoire of models is still up for debate.

For example, the mantis shrimp mimicry may look like any old octopus sitting at its den entrance. The tunicate mimicry could fall under the definition of camouflage. But what we think doesn't matter, it's what the predators think, and none of this has been really tested To find out more about how such behaviour came out and how much it is learned, we can though study its evolution.

Evolution of a mimic

Scientists from the California Academy of Sciences used DNA analysis to look at how and why this intriguing ability evolved in an animal that usually relies on invisibility to avoid predators. Octopus are normally masters of camouflage, changing the colour of their skin through chromatophores, pigment-containing, light-reflecting cells found in amphibians, fish, reptiles, crustaceans, and octopus. Instead of blending in to avoid detection, the mimic gets out and actually shows itself in the most spectacular of ways

Using DNA sequencing to construct a genealogy of the mimic and 35 of its octopus relatives, the team were able to chart the order in which key mimic traits evolved. First, the mimic’s ancestors used bold brown and white colouration to shock predators when their camouflage was unsuccessful. Later ancestors then developed the swimming method used by flatfish and the longer arms to improve the mimicry.

The last evolutionary step was combining these abilities. The mimic, at the end of this evolutionary line, can display bold colouration and swim like a flatfish. It is a very risky shift in defence tactics. Somehow through natural selection, being conspicuous has allowed the mimic octopus to survive and reproduce more successfully than its less showy ancestors, and eventually evolve into its own lineage. Working out how they select what to mimic is more difficult.

Assessing just how much of this bizarre and unique behaviour is learned, is another challenge. Each octopus has a repertoire of shapes/body patterns it runs through- sometimes randomly, sometimes in a certain order. Other behaviours may be influenced by learning, or the situations the octopus encounters.

For example, one octopus is known to mimic the fish it forages with (social mimicry). Its possible that learning may influence mimicry and other behaviours that the octopus inherited from its ancestors.”

Smarter than we thought

It's clear that we're not dealing with your average invertebrate. Given all this, are octopuses intelligent in the vertebrate sense. Intelligence in all animals including humans is a thorny issue at the best of times. Like any animal, wild octopuses spend most of their time resting, looking for food, trying not to be eaten, and mating.

The way they accomplish these daily needs can involve interesting aspects of learning, memory, and choice. Some insects have far more complex mating behaviours; mantis shrimps have more complex vision and possibly communication. And some deep sea worms have more exceptional defences. All of these traits reflect thousands of years of natural trial and error played out in their ancestors- and all of this is pretty cool, whether or not it fits an academic definition of intelligence.

Octopuses present quite a conundrum to biologists. They are short-lived, unsociable invertebrates, the opposite of what we think has driven intelligent behaviour.

Yet science shows us that they are indeed smarter than your average invertebrate. Those of us who have had close encounters with these enigmatic creatures know that they are certainly a smarty pants; curious, crafty and some would say playful.

Personality matters

Perhaps even more sensational, are revelations are that not only do they engage in play, but that octopus also have personalities in the human sense. Discussions of animal personality are controversial and it is hard to measure and quantify. Personality is classed as “temperamental differences” between individuals within a species.

In humans, for instance, life in an ever-changing environment with numerous threats requires a large variety of response and therefore the evolution of different temperaments or “personalities”.In the wild, we definitely see evidence that some octopuses have different ways of behaving than others. Call it personality if you like, this variation in behaviour has serious implications for how octopuses mate, find food, and keep them from being eaten.

Intelligent? well that all depends on how you define intelligence, complex yes, successful in their world? yes certainly. Science is challenging our expectations of animal behaviour, especially in invertebrates. Octopus play key roles in marine ecosystems, are biologically and behaviourally fascinating and have enormous potential for discovery.

Grief on the Reef

Posted on March 21, 2019 at 11:20 PM

Coral bleaching is in the press daily. It's a fever that shows no sign of abating. Back in 1998, while surveying a reef in The Philippines, I vividly recall the surprise at jumping into bath tub warm waters Descending to 10 metres, my dive computer told me the temperature was still 30°C. Before us was a scene from the magical land of Narnia. Every coral, as far as we could see, was a shimmering white. Pale pink table corals punctuated a forest of white skeletons. Swimming over the tops of the corals we could see tiny polyps, tentacles out hunting for food, their colour though, was completely absent. I thought we had come across a garden of bizarre new coral. Looking around, it was clear this was something else entirely. I had never seem it on such a scale, and had previously only read about it. Here was a phenomenon called coral bleaching.

How to stress a polyp

Coral reefs exist happily within the temperature range 25 to 29°C. Spikes in sea temperature outside of this narrow band causes bleaching. When exposed to prolonged spikes, bleaching is fatal for corals.

Corals are colonies of tiny jellyfish type animals called polyps, living together in their calcified cups to form the vast structures we know as corals. The polyps have tentacles equipped with stinging cells called nematocysts, waved in the currents to snare tiny planktonic creatures to eat.

But their main nutrition comes from a relationship with a tiny algae living in their tissues -zooxanthellae (zoo-zan-thel-ee). Its one of natures most beautiful symbiotic relationships, where everyone benefits. The algae are plants, capturing sunlight to enable the corals to grow and thrive. In return the tiny zooxanthellae get a safe place to live.

When stressed, through spikes in sea temperatures, these tiny algal cells are expelles part of the coral polyps defence mechanism. Usually the stress is short lived, the coral would get its algae back enabling it to recover. And indeed bleaching does happen on a small scale in nature. But times, and our climate, as we know, have changed. The 1998 mass bleaching event was the first of many and left marine scientists around the world in shock for the sheer scale and damage it caused. There are natural increases in sea water temperature usually coinciding with El Niño events. It is the period of normality between these events that allows the coral to recover. So what then has changed? Our problem is that the normal times between these events is now also warmer so corals do not get an opportunity to recover from the stress. And extreme El Niños are becoming more frequent as ocean temperatures rise.

Bleaching increases as ocean warms

“The time between bleaching events has diminished five-fold in the past 3-4 decades, from once every 25-30 years in the early 1980s to an average of just once every six years since 2010,” says Prof. Terry Hughes, lead author a paper published in the prestigious journal, Science, the first to assess the scale of coral bleaching globally.

“Before the 1980s, mass bleaching of corals was unheard of, even during strong El Niño conditions, but now repeated bouts of regional-scale bleaching and mass mortality of corals has become the new normal around the world as temperatures continue to rise.”

Does it matter if we lose these vast rainforest of our oceans? Coral reefs cover only 1% of our planet but are home to more than a third of all ocean biodiversity. If our oceans are the lungs of our planet then coral reefs are the blood vessels running through this vast network of life on earth. Yes they matter, enormously so.

The media coverage of coral bleaching is bleak, offering little hope. But among the metaphorical hand wringing there are scientists quietly and diligently beavering away on ways to help and indeed ultimately save our precious coral reefs.

The Search for Super Corals

In December last year a tourism operator, The Great Barrier Reef Legacy organised a research expedition offering scientists places aboard to spend three weeks surveying parts of the GBR rarely visited. Their aim was to find a recently discovered phenomenon “super corals”- corals that for some reason have managed to survive the onslaught of ocean warming.

Dr Emma Camp from University of Technology Sydney was aboard the expedition.

“The idea of super corals has been around a while, with scientists using it to describe corals that have naturally adapted to tolerate warmer conditions, or can be genetically adapted to survive future stress events.”

The hunt for super coral has evolved from the need to find corals more resilient to the changing environmental conditions occurring from human-impacts, she says. But super corals cannot save our reefs alone.

“Super corals can't mitigate warming events. We urgently need to reduce carbon emissions to reduce the number of future warming events.”

Even if we were to cut carbon emissions today, we will be stuck with at least a decade of environmental change while the climate equilibrates.

“Super corals could help buy us time” she says. So helping some corals survive into the future. Camp collected 99 live coral samples of 12 species of super corals during the expedition. With colleagues at the Australian institute of Marine Science she is running detailed investigations to define their biological make up to understand why some corals survive, when others do not.

There no clues yet as to why some species are more resilient. “One of the key issues is why some reefs survive stress and others don’t. It’s complex, and several factors are involved- rigidity, species diversity and others.”

She is hopeful that they will have some answers soon.

GBR suffers back to back bleaching


The Great Barrier Reef in Australia has been hit hardest of all with back to back bleaching events. In the first half of 2016 sea surface temperatures spiked affecting the worlds reefs. The GBR suffered widescale bleaching especially on its northern reefs with scientists estimating 95% of reefs were affected. An estimated third of shallow water coral was lost across the Coral Sea.

Just when marine scientists thought it would be a while until the next event, giving corals time to recover, disaster struck again. In late 2016 and early 2017 another spike in temperature occurred, sending tendrils of death across the remaining corals.

2018 has been designated as International Year of the Reef. The third in history as a response to the dire conditions facing our coral reefs.

Professor James Crabbe is Chair of the Education Committee of International Society for Reef Studies. He says that education is the key.

“Corals have so many stressors put on them; overfishing, pollution, as well as ocean warming and acidification. Education is crucial, and the earlier the better.”

“ Last years IYOR gives us a platform to inform and educate people about reefs”.

The science is out. It is time to act. If we want to keep the astounding and critical beauty of the worlds coral reefs, it is in our own hands.

How you can help

Information on how you can get involved -IYOR Visit

Reduce your emissions (cycle, walk, turn off electrical appliances, reduce your number of flights, go solar)

Reduce your plastic use

Refuse single use plastic

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Support coral reef research and conservation efforts.