Dance of the Dumbo Octopod Decoded

Zoologist Michael Vecchione, director of the NOAA Lab at the Natural History Museum, sheds some light on the mysterious deep-sea creature

In September 2005, members of the VISIONS 05 expedition crew were studying the volcanic activity of the Juan de Fuca Ridge 200 miles off of the Oregon coast when they came across a white deep-sea octopus, Grimpoteuthis bathynectes, at a depth of 6,600 feet. They captured high-definition video footage of the octopus—one of the first high-definition videos of this species—which, complemented by beautiful music, makes for a spectacular video. The video made a debut appearance recently on the Smithsonian Ocean Portal. At the end of the video, the text states that “little is known about the deep-sea octopods,” so the ATM blog team got a little curious and sought out zoologist Michael Vecchione, director of the NMFS National Systematics Laboratory and renowned cephalopod expert, who helped to shed some light on this mysterious deep-sea creature. Here is what we’ve learned:

1. Taxonomy: Dumbo octopuses are a group of deep-sea octopods. Vecchione estimates there are a few dozen species.

2. Appearance: They are different from the octopuses that most people recognize. Dumbos have fins on the sides of their bodies. Instead of jetting around and squirting water out of their funnels, they swim by flapping the fins and sometimes by pulsing their arms, which are webbed. They also have two little finger-like projections on their arms, in between the two suckers, called cirri. While scientists aren’t sure how the projections are used (for instance, whether or not they are sensory), they do know that they are associated with eating.

3. Behavior: Some Dumbo octopuses spend most of their time swimming around and others spend more time on the bottom of the ocean floor, flattened out. The one in the video does both. Dumbo octopuses are some of the largest invertebrates of the really deep sea.

4 . Location: They are usually found anywhere from 1,000 meters to about 5,00o meters below the surface. “People don’t normally explore those kinds of depths, so we don’t know a whole lot about what lives down there,” Vecchione says. While this octopus was found in an area with hydrothermal vent fields, there is no evidence that the animals are restricted to those kinds of areas.

5.  The name: Submarine pilots gave the octopuses their nickname because their fins resemble the ears of the cartoon character “Dumbo, the Flying Elephant.”

Vecchione has seen many videos of Dumbo octopuses, including this one shortly after it was recorded. The quality of the video is what makes it stand out, he says. “It was nice video,” he says, “it was nothing Earth-shattering, but it’s a very nice video of a Grimpoteuthis.”

Nothing special for a octopus-man, but we thought it was pretty cool. Take a look.

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