Two bits of cephalopod stuff in the media last week, both of which raised the hackles but for different reasons relating to how the media (in this case mostly online) handles science reporting. I always find this kind of stuff interesting, doubly so since a really interesting talk at NatSCA 2015 Annual Conference where we heard from colleagues at the BBC and science programmers about how documentaries aren’t for those in the know. Both in terms or viewers and critical acclaim, the scientists may hate shoddy science but they aren’t the target audience. This shouldn’t give the media free rein to just report what they like but trying to squeeze complicated, limited and caveated findings into nice black and white narratives leads to more confusion. Things can only be bigger, smaller, disappearing, brand new, oldest, fastest, slowest etc. Biology, (un)fortunately, is rarely that simple.
The first of the bits of news last week was this paper, Global proliferation of cephalopods in Current Biology about estimating cephalopod populations which was a meta analysis of long term cephalopod survey and catch data that many countries should report on. The meta-analysis combined the data sets and modelled fishing effort to estimate if there were trends, in reported cephalopod catches that might give us an insight into these animals. The paper is easy to read and there’s a nice article by one of the authors up on the Conversation Octopus and Squid populations are booming and here’s why.
The rest of the media however, got a tad carried away with the headlines, which is understandable because that’s what headlines are for and god damn, we’d welcome the overlords:
Squids and octopuses — the ‘weeds of the sea’ — are on the rise Washington Post.
Octopus and Squid Populations Exploding Worldwide Scientific American headline for the same Conversation article linked above.
It’s okay media, I understand. It’s hard not to lose your shit when it comes to cephalopods. They are cool animals. However, looking at the paper and the data what’s interesting is what’s missing from the compiled data sets , which is, well, 95% of all cephalopod species. Survey data only existed covering a reported 35 ‘species’ and that includes the specific errr ‘species’: Alloteuthis sp, ‘Loligo sp, Alloteuthis sp’, ‘Loligo sp Uroteuthis sp’, Uroteuthis sp, ‘Todarodes sp, Illex sp, Todaropsis sp’, ‘Sepia sp.’ and Unknown Sepiolidae. Which raises the first issue. Cephalopods, even living specimens are extremely difficult to identify hence these vague groupings being recorded in catch and survey data. Not only are they hard to identify but the standards for recording this data, especially in fisheries catch reporting are inconsistent within countries as well as across countries. So much so that these issues were specifically cited in the 2014 Report of the Working Group on Cephalopod Fisheries and Life History (WGCEPH) as well as from the Red List of Globally Threatened Species: Cephalopods working group. This is why of the 494 out of 800 species that have been assessed in the IUCN Red List currently nearly 300 are listed as ‘data deficient’. This isn’t a criticism of the method, the research group pulled together the best available data, however, scientists (like the authors) will make guarded assumptions about possible trends in data. Already, and I hope you are too, I’m feeling uncomfortable about heralding the EXPLOSION of cephalopods given that it’s really less than 30 species out of ~800 which are in this analysis. The upward trend in the last 60 years is significant which can’t be ignored but how far can we assume this is the case across the group from the limited sample here?
If we break down the data even further only 10/300 Octopus ‘species’, 4/120 cuttlefish ‘species’, one ‘Unknown’ species of Bobtail squid out of 70 species and 22/300 or so squid species that there is data for. In the coverage in the Atlantic, the rise in numbers is described as applying to every major group, whereas it was observed for some members of the large groups but by no means the majority. Furthermore, three of the major taxonomic groups (although much smaller in terms of possible species)- nautiloids, vampire squid and the enigmatic ram’s horn squid are missing altogether. This is important as both nautiloids and ram’s horn squid are cephalopods with exposed shells and if anything, nautiloids are in decline, the United States, joined by the nations of Fiji, India, and Palau are proposing to list them under CITES Appendix II http://www.fws.gov/international/cites/cop17/us-submissions.html at the next meeting of CITES to control the international trade in them.
Now you may think I should get over it and find better things to worry about with my time, this’ll be forgotten in a few days in any case, but to me, what we don’t know is more interesting and for cephalopods there’s a great deal we don’t know. Why isn’t there any data for 95% of cephalopod species? Why aren’t any of the missing species caught in enough abundance to be reported? Why aren’t more resources put into identifying the cephalopods that are caught by fisheries? I also want to be clear that this is no comment on the scientific paper, it’s the reporting of it that has rustled my jimmies.
The other cephalopod headline last week was this op-ed piece at the Guardian, Do you care about animals? Then you really shouldn’t eat octopus which chimes with me a lot when it comes to personal preferences and sustainable living. I don’t eat cephalopods for ethical reasons (#FirstWorldProblems) precisely for some of the reasons that Elle Hunt lists and I do get mildly peeved as a lot of popular writing about them marvelling at their intelligence and biology goes hand in hand with delicious recipes and best place to eat them. However, she does drop one clanger and it’s the suggestion that one reason we shouldn’t eat octopuses is because they have more genes than we do. Cue- scientists the world over listing commonly eaten fruit and vegetables that have larger number of genes than humans.
It’s the kind of nonsense reasoning you’d find in ‘scientific’ diets or cosmetic adverts but I can’t work out if it’s an embarrassing public misunderstanding or a genuine attempt to convince the masses to make different lifestyle choices. Trying to encourage people to make trivial lifestyle changes (don’t have pets, don’t drink bottled water, don’t buy cut flowers, don’t eat too many air miles) is a tall order, especially when there’s so much obfuscation with branding and information about where food comes from. Combine this with how overhyped the power of genetics and genomes are in science and perhaps number of genes is exactly the kind of pseudoscience that’ll make people think twice. Or not.