Photo: SEPESCA Campeche
Octopuses are animals with a nervous system that in many ways resembles that of vertebrates. Researchers from the Ensenada Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education are dedicated to unraveling some of the risks to its conservation.
By: Laura Puentes
It was the year 2010, when the eyes of the world were on the World Cup in South Africa . Among the many peculiar things that usually happen at the event, one of the most striking was an octopus named Paul .
This animal, the international media said, could predict the results that the German soccer team would obtain , leaving people shocked by its precision. In his fishbowl he chose between two boxes of food with the flags of the party countries, and the box he chose turned out to be the winner .
While Paul’s alleged ability to “predict” is nothing more than a fluke, the truth is that octopuses are fascinating beings, as Dr. Clara Galindo, a researcher at the Laboratory of Functional Genomics of Marine Organisms of the Ensenada Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education (CICESE), explained to us during the conference “The Mayan octopus: a story that counting through genes ”.
This conference took place during the XXXVI National Meeting of Scientific Dissemination .
The name that scientists use to call octopuses in general is Octopus, which comes from the Greek octo which means “eight” and podo which means “foot” . So, it is an organism of eight feet, which are actually called arms, which have suction cups, with which they can adhere to instruments or their prey.
These are classified within the group of mollusks, and the main characteristic is that they do not have bones, therefore they do not have a vertebral column or any bone structure . They are also part of the group of Cephalopods, this means ‘head to feet’, which in turn is divided into two large groups: on the one hand the octopuses and on the other the squid and cuttlefish.
There are different types of octopus, which come in different sizes, colors, and shapes. They are exclusively from marine habitats, “all the adaptations they have had have been related to the sea.” They are found in all the world’s oceans from the equator to the polar ones.
Masters of disguise
The size of the octopuses ranges from 12 centimeters to 5 meters. Furthermore, these living beings have three hearts. “They have the ability to pump blood through three muscles, but two of these exclusively pump blood to the gills, while the central heart is responsible for distributing blood throughout the body, including the arms,” explains Dr. Galindo.
One of the characteristics that most distinguish octopuses is the complexity of their skin and their ability to rapidly change pattern and texture. “In order to go unnoticed by their predators, they change their skin and pattern.” It is through chromatic components that produce this skin color and are under direct neuronal control. “These organisms are masters of disguises.”
An impressive nervous system
Octopuses are recognized for their well-developed brain and nervous system. “They are the only mollusks that have a complex nervous system, have a central brain, divided into several lobes and have neurons in each of its eight arms,” says Dr. Galindo.
These organisms live with more than one brain. “We could say they have 9 brains and I’m not kidding. Because each of the arms can have a separate mobility, that is to say, they are independent ” . Likewise, octopuses have 500 million neurons, while a human has 86 billion.
Mayan octopus: a very Mexican species
The Mayan octopus is one of the emblematic marine species of Mexico. The Mayan Octupus or red octopus, is an endemic species that inhabits the Yucatan platform and is one of the most important fishing resources in the country.
It is a seed species, that is, females only lay eggs once in their entire lives and die after they hatch. This means that they only survive for so long after their young are born. They present a direct development, so the octopuses are born with adult characteristics and do not go through the larval stage, like other marine species .
However, something that worries researchers is the increase in temperature, since it can drastically affect the success and survival of this species .
“Some scientists have started to think that if the sea temperature increases, it could be putting the survival of this species at risk , be careful, this species cannot move from this area because it lives exclusively in that area,” says Dr. Galindo.
The challenge of studying the Mayan octopus
Scientists for years have studied the Mayan octopus not only in its behavior within the waters of Yucatan but from its own DNA to understand more about this organism.
Dr. Galindo shares that her DNA or RNA is extracted from the octopus from the area where she wants to study, which can be an arm or a body area, and then it is put into a special laboratory machine that translates all of the letters into letter codes. that information to do a bioinformatic analysis.
“We translate all that information to find out which genes are being expressed at that moment, that is, which proteins are needed at that moment . For example, when the temperature rises, what protein does it need to survive ”.
However, understanding this has not been easy, due among other things, because octopuses have a complex nervous system, which controls reproduction.
With the complexity of genes of a vertebrate
The first complete genome analysis of the octopus revealed unique genomic characteristics in these mollusks, which likely play a key role in the evolution of traits such as their adaptive camouflage ability and their complete nervous system.
In 2015, scientists through investigations of octopus DNA (genome) found that they have a large number of genes associated with the brain. Before this, these types of genes were only found in vertebrates.
“They have unique genes, they evolved in a different way and this complexity in the genes makes them unique.”
Temperature modifies the expression of genes associated with male sperm quality and infertility. Whereas, in females it affects genes related to egg-sperm signaling.
“Although more research is lacking, it is clear that an increase in temperature, together with the mismanagement of the resource, can endanger the survival of the red octopus in the Yucatan peninsula.”
An important resource for the country
The Mayan octopus is one of the most important resources in the country, not only for researchers but for those who are dedicated to commercializing them.
“This octopus is not only ours, but it supports one of the largest fisheries in Mexico, there are many people who depend on this resource. Not because it is a charismatic body do we have to forget that it is also a means of sustenance ”, emphasizes Dr. Clara.
Galindo concluded his conference with the importance of investing resources in the investigation of this species of octopus and above all in generating sustainability in its breeding .
“For this resource to continue to exist, there must be programs and more research, that the breeding of these organisms can be sustainable so that this product continues to be used and all the people who depend on them can continue.”