The New York Times
September 24, 2002
Bottled Baby Octopuses Turn Out to Be Pygmies
By CHARLES Q. CHOI
In century-old jars of alcohol on museum shelves in Paris and Washington and
off the coasts of Indonesia, Senegal and the Caribbean, zoologists are
stumbling upon dozens of species of tiny octopuses once believed to be
babies of their larger relatives.
Described by their discoverers as Lilliputian, some of the pygmy species are
smaller than the hatchlings of the bigger and better known octopus. Each of
the pygmies is about the size of a thumbnail, with weights measured in
tenths of a gram, making them tiny even compared with the inches-high
characters in "Gulliver's Travels."
While the researchers are not formally presenting their findings until next
year after gathering more data, other top experts in the field who know of
their results say these small octopuses are a big deal.
These newly recognized pygmies appear to lurk in tropical waters all over
the globe, and their diversity is making scientists rethink what they know
"The more we look, the more we find," said Dr. Eric Hochberg, the curator of
invertebrate zoology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.
When octopuses this small are even spotted on expeditions, they are usually
tossed in jars and forgotten, Dr. Hochberg said. Over the years, he and his
colleague Dr. Mark Norman occasionally received hints that there was more
than met the eye with the tiny creatures, from specimens collected during
dives or from pictures of the Lilliputians apparently brooding eggs.
Then, when they were in the Natural History Museum in Paris last May for a
study on tropical octopus diversity, they noticed rows of small,
alcohol-preserved specimens, some of which sat unstudied for more than 100
years on the back shelves.
Upon dissecting the Marquesan and New Caledonian octopuses, instead of
finding infants, Dr. Hochberg and Dr. Norman discovered full-grown adults.
Enlisting another cephalopod biologist, Mike Sweeney, they dug through the
collections at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the
Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington last July.
They realized "there was this hidden universe under our doorstep no one ever
even dreamed of," Dr. Norman said from the Museum Victoria in Melbourne,
Dr. Norman believes the jelly-bean-size creatures dwell in the crevices of
coral reefs or small holdfasts in giant kelp "almost like the lions of
miniature rain forests," devouring tiny shrimps, crabs or snails. These
shadowy refuges allow the mostly drab pygmy octopuses to live without the
camouflage larger species possess.
Dr. Hochberg also believes most of the pygmies probably lack poison,
although one pygmy species from the Gulf of California in Mexico has a bite
that causes swelling like a bee sting, he noted.
Scientists did classify a handful of pygmy species in the 1930's and 1950's,
but nearly all the specimens the researchers have of these new varieties
come from museum collections, so their habits remain largely a mystery.
Preservative fluids usually make octopuses lose what natural color they
have, and dissecting such tiny animals with precision is difficult.
"The new lower size limits with these octopuses now seem to go to really
interesting and almost unlikely degrees," said Dr. Sigurd von Boletzky of
the Arago Laboratory in Banyuls-sur-Mer, France, a marine zoologist who
works extensively with pygmy squid. "This is same kind of record breaking
you'd see at the other end of the size scale with giant squid."
Their size may have been an advantage, Dr. Norman said.
"Their big brothers would go roving from the safety of their coral reefs
lacking the armor and spines all the other animals take for granted," Dr.
Norman said. "They really are filet mignon waiting to be eaten by anyone. If
all of your big brothers get eaten, it makes sense to stay home and get
Judging from the longer-known mini-species, the octopuses live only three or
four months, compared with the one- to two-year lifetimes of their bigger
relatives, the researchers said.
Dr. Hochberg, Dr. Norman and Mr. Sweeney continue to work on pygmy specimens
from Senegal, Mexico, Panama, New Caledonia, the Marqueses and the
Philippines, while doctorate students at the University of California at
Berkeley are researching pygmy species in Indonesia and Belize. Dr. Norman
says some have also been found in the cooler waters off California and
Australia, and he is holding out hope for polar species.
So far the researchers do not have enough data to fit the new species into
the octopus family tree of more than 250 species. There are studies under
way to collect tissue samples from a wide range of pygmy species for DNA
analysis, as researchers first told United Press International. Dr.
Hochberg, Dr. Norman and Mr. Sweeney plan to present what information they
have on the pygmy octopuses at a symposium in February in Thailand dealing
with cephalopods like octopuses and squids.
"They haven't published anything of this information yet, so none of us know
what they're describing," said John W. Forsythe, a cephalopod specialist at
the University of Texas Marine Biomedical Institute in Galveston.
"Everybody's waiting for them to get it to us."