Friday, September 14, 2007

scientific whimsy

There are some pretty great octopuses in the world. New Zealand has the Maori octopus (not tattooed, unfortunately) and Haliphron atlanticus. The deep sea has given us the ever-adorable Dumbo Octopus. The Pacific Northwest houses the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus--er, I mean, the Giant Pacific Octopus.

At
the top of the awesome list are the Indo-Pacific's Mimic Octopus and
Wunderpus. You may have heard of them, or seen them on a nature show.
They're quite famous (as octopuses go). The science blog Pharyngula
presents an excellent array of annotated pictures and videos of the mimic octopus, so I needn't delve into that species here.

Instead,
let me tell you about Wunderpus. Photographs and the occasional
specimen of this remarkable creature began circulating globally around
the 1980's. I don't know who was the first person to call it the
Wunderpus, but I know why. Because it is a wonder, and the German "w√ľnder" is way cooler than the English "wonder".

So people've known about Wunderpus for a couple of decades. And they loooove
to take pictures of it. But it proved pretty difficult for scientists
to find the necessary specimens for a description of the species. You
may be thinking to yourself, "Heck, I could describe that species right
now from those pictures you linked. It's got crazy brown and white
stripes, really long arms with little webs between them, and
funny-looking horns over its eyes. Also, it's probably huge."

(Well,
you'd be wrong that it's huge. The mantle (the central blob that's more
spotted than striped, containing all the internal organs) is only about
two centimeters, and the whole length of the beast, arm to arm, is
about ten times that. I can't find any Wunderpus pictures with anything
like a thumb in them for scale, but here are some pictures of one in an aquarium, which may help.)

Setting
aside that easily corrected mistake, your description, however accurate
and articulate, still won't cut it for science. "Describe" is one of
those ordinary words that biologists have hijacked for their own purposes.
When we say "description," we mean an article, published in a
peer-reviewed journal, that provides a detailed catalogue of all
information about a species: geographic distribution, internal and
external anatomy, behavior, ecology, and so forth. It also includes a
set of detailed measurements, drawings, and perhaps photographs of a holotype for the species.

What is a holotype, and how is it different from an ordinary type? Here's a list of types of types
for fun, but suffice it to say here that every described species has
(or ought to have) a holotype sitting in a jar in a museum. While a
picture may be worth a thousand words, a specimen in the hand is worth
two in the... whatever. The point is that other scientists, perhaps
tomorrow, perhaps a hundred years from now, can look up the holotype
and be absolutely certain they know just who Wunderpus is.

But
didn't I say scientists were having a hard time finding Wunderpus
specimens for typing? They were, but in 2006 they finally got enough
information together to publish a description of Wunderpus. It's
actually two descriptions in one, because Wunderpus is not closely
related enough to anything (even Cousin Mimic) to share a genus. So it
gets its own genus and its own species.

It shouldn't be surprising that they chose to call the new genus Wunderpus, since everyone knew it already and it's such a delicious name. But what to name the species of this marvelous octopus?

Wunderpus photogenicus.

Are you kidding me? Is this for real? Did they actually call it photogenicus? No, yes, and yes. It is for real. It is in the Literature. Here's the peer-reviewed article, which I believe is freely available, so you don't need any kind of privileged access. (Let me know if I'm wrong.)

It pleases me to know that there's still room for whimsy in science.

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