Scientists are raising octopuses in captivity to learn more about their biology that might lead to the development of new treatments.
Currently, scientists use a few select model organisms, such as mice, for experiments. These creatures are easier to keep inside laboratories to be studied.
Octopuses are a little more challenging. The sea creatures are known to escape their enclosures. They also are not very sociable; they will attack each other when placed in the same tanks. In addition, they are sensitive about the chemistry of water around them and they grow fast.
Scientists Raising Octopuses In Captivity For Research
However, by choosing to only study organisms that are easy to handle inside the laboratory would leave the majority of the animal kingdom unexplored. That is why researchers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts have been raising octopuses for scientific experimentation.
NPR reported that researchers at MLB chose four species from around the world that are small and quick to reproduce. One is the pygmy zebra octopus, which only grows to about the size of a grape and can lay numerous eggs.
"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," said Bret Grasse, the manager of cephalopod operations at MLB. "We're going to continue to scale this program as more and more scientific communities become involved."
He added that they already have roughly 3,000 cephalopods in their care.
The close relatives of octopuses are clams and snails, but the researchers said that their genes are a lot similar to the ones that humans have. They also said that the sea creatures are ahead of humans in terms of evolution.
"Cephalopods are this fantastic example of a completely independent evolution of large brains," explained Carrie Albertin, a biologist at MLB. "They have these beautiful, fantastic, elaborate brains."
Using Octopus In The Lab Raises Ethics Concerns
Last year, neuroscientists from MLB placed octopuses into beakers filled with dissolved ecstasy. They reported, in a study published in Current Biology, that the sea creatures, known for anti-social behaviors, became touchy-feely.
The experiment immediately received criticisms from animal activists, including from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or PETA. The organization, in an e-mail to The Washington Post, slammed the experiment as "indefensible, curiosity-driven nonsense."
In the United States, animal welfare rules do not apply to creatures without a backbone like octopuses. However, Josh Rosenthal, another biologist at MBL, said that, nonetheless, researchers are looking for ways to give the cephalopods in their care humane treatment.
For one, he said that the lab has figured out what anesthesias can be used on cephalopods. They also make sure that the living conditions inside the lab are stress-free.