Scientists Think Octopuses Would Make Terrific Lab Rats

The octopus is a smart, curious and mysterious being. So does it surprise you to learn that these very qualities mean scientists are turning octopuses into 21st century lab rats?

Yes, it’s true. There are now thousands of octopuses and other cephalopods living in laboratories. The Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, is at the forefront of the effort to study all aspects of cephalopod physiology. Whether that’s a good thing depends on your perspective.

“It’s the only place on the planet that you can go where we are culturing a number of these species through every life stage, through successive generations, with the goal of creating a genetically tractable system,” Marine Biological Laboratory’s Bret Grasse told NPR.

Scientists study many types of animals for different reasons. They call certain creatures “model organisms” because their biology is often similar to ours and we already know quite a lot about their genetic makeup. Such organisms include yeast, fruit flies, worms, zebrafish and mice.

To understand tissue regeneration, scientists study zebrafish and worms, who can regrow appendages they injure or lose completely. To study the interaction of genes with environment, they look at honeybees and fruit flies. To study aging, the sea urchin has been a useful study animal because it can regrow body parts through its lifetime.

Octopuses have the largest, most complex brain of all invertebrate animals. That makes them of great interest to scientists, especially those who do research on genes. Scientists can now alter octopus genes, meaning they are breeding these creatures and fiddling with their genetic makeup to see what effect those changes have.

“With these organisms, you could understand what genes did by manipulating them,” Marine Biological Laboratory biologist Josh Rosenthal told NPR. “And that really became an indispensable part of biology.”

All about the octopus

Octopuses — yes, that’s the correct plural term, not “octopi” — are eight-legged ocean dwellers who have three hearts and blue blood. They are a type of highly advanced mollusk. Completely boneless, they can squeeze into impossibly small spaces, making them rather infamous escape artists from aquariums.

“They are curious, inquisitive animals,” Roger Hanlon, Marine Biological Laboratory senior scientist, told Live Science in 2016. “They forage hundreds of meters per day looking for food and mates and different shelters. This is an ambulatory animal, so the idea that they would want to move outside their tank in an aquarium is not at all surprising.”

The octopus is a solitary wanderer. Except when mating, it explores the world by itself. When placed together in lab aquariums, octopuses fight one another. They therefore each need their own living space. And speaking of containers, an octopus has no trouble unscrewing itself from inside a jar.

Each leg of an octopus — technically, it’s not a “tentacle” — contains 200 or more highly sensitive suckers they use for both taste and touch.

An octopus has amazing defensive mechanisms. It can quickly change its color to camouflage itself, hide among ocean waves by matching their speed exactly, flatten itself to mimic being a fish and, when cornered, squirt ink to create a distraction or screen from predators.

Animal welfare rules are lacking

Of course, any impressive and intelligent animal eventually becomes the focus of scientific experimentation. Now, it’s unfortunately the octopus’s turn. That could be a problem for them, as animal welfare rules for scientific research don’t apply to invertebrate animals — those without a spine — except in the European Union.

Marine Biological Laboratory has some 3,000 cephalopods and is breeding more all the time. For animal lovers, that’s not good news. But it’s heartening to know that despite the lack of regulations to protect these creatures, Marine Biological Laboratory says it’s taking their welfare seriously.

Researchers are working on keeping living conditions as stress-free as possible. Marine Biological Laboratory is also putting effort into determining what anesthesia will work best for cephalopods and developing what they call a “one-of-a-kind policy for cephalopod research.”

I wish we could find other ways to research than to poke at animals. How sad that these wonderful, intelligent creatures live their entire lives in labs instead of free in the oceans where they belong.

That said, I’m grateful these researchers are actively thinking about how to make captive octopus lives better, even when legally they aren’t required to do so. But it’s time we regulate cephalopod research to make sure we don’t have to depend on the conscience of those doing the experimenting.

Photo credit: fotokon/Getty Images

140 comments

Blanca Estela G
Blanca Estela G1 days ago

Criminais Abusers with octopuseds

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Karen Swenson
Karen Swenson2 days ago

NO, no, no, no! My heart breaks when I think of all the poor chimpanzees who lived their lives in cramped cages, all the dogs and cats who suffer daily and now they want to take such an intelligent creature and do who knows what with it? I realize we need experimentation in order to eradicate some horrible diseases, so use humans--pay them large sums of money,--these experiments are for humans anyway, so get rid of the middle creature and go right to the source.

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Elaine W
Elaine W2 days ago

Just NO, absolutely do not let this happen.

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Melanie St. Germaine
Melanie S3 days ago

Its time to stop the experiments and let them be.

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Tanya W
Tanya W3 days ago

Leave these intelligent animals alone to live the life they are designed to!

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Tanya W
Tanya W3 days ago

I agree - do research on humans - which is what the outcome is designed for! Stop tormenting everything!

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Amparo Fabiana Chepote

Wow. Leave them in their habitat.

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Marija M
Marija M3 days ago

tks for sharing, interesting...

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Marija M
Marija M3 days ago

tks

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Hui S
Hui S3 days ago

thank you for sharing. if we are going to learn anything from octopuses, it should be in their natural environment, in the wild. not in labs.

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