Documenting Cephalopods Part 1 It Started With A Spreadsheet

Well, it started with a list actually, well before that it started with months of familiarisation with the collections at Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the Collections Manager (Life Collections) at Oxford University Museum of Natural History and I manage the zoological collections (excepting the huge entomology sensu latu collections) and I’ve been in post for nearly two years now. My role at the museum as I see it is to facilitate access and use of the amazing collections at the museum but in order to do this, we need to get a handle on what material is in these collections.

This multi-part series will take you through the process from start to nearly finish, I suspect the pace of these blog posts will outstrip the pace of the work, in documenting the cephalopod collections at the museum. I have taught collections management in the past and (sadly) am very interested in how documentation works but in my work across the sector and wider, when discussing the problems with managing natural history collections, people not familiar with the work will ask “Why don’t you crowd source it” or “Just get volunteers to do it”. I’m afraid in many cases it isn’t that simple so these posts will take us through the whole process which is frustrating and laborious at times but ultimately satisfying when done right. It’ll be cathartic for me and scratch that teaching itch and who knows, it may be of some interest to others at the very least the nerdy museum documenters out there (shout outs to @RussellShepherd and @RegistrarTrek and the #MuseumDocumentation no offense intended).

Series introduced, let’s get on to documenting cephalopods. Continue reading

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When is a giant octopus not a giant octopus?

A new story doing the rounds earlier this week reported on a ‘foolhardy’ dolphin that suffocated whilst trying to eat a giant octopus. You can read the story here at New Scientist. The story is based on a short note paper published in Marine Mammal Science and its one of those nice little papers that describes a rare behaviour to add to the anecdotal record of behaviour between cetaceans and cephalopods. The Marine Mammal Science paper goes into grim detail about how an octopuses arms and suckers can remain active up to an hour after the ‘head has died’ and in this instance the suckers were still firmly to the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin’s larynx, oesophagus and tongue during the autopsy.  The story was circulated fairly widely in the ‘science tabloid’ outlets and news websites however all is not as it seems.

Headline from the New Scientist reporting

Many stories lead with the headline about a giant octopus and some sort of judgement of the dolphin involved- greedy, foolhardy- but the reporting of this story is a nice example of when engineering a clickable headline and story is actually a bit misleading. At its worst we called say this was fake news. But this is exactly the kind of example I like to use when teaching students about the difficulties of striving for readability and accuracy as well as the wonderful complication of language especially when it comes to science. So when is a giant octopus not a giant octopus? Read on to find out. Continue reading

Which is larger, giant squid or the Moon?

Ha ha tricksy title! I mean giant squid as in multiple giant squid, Architeuthis dux not a single giant squid, which would be a very silly question indeed. I’ll explain how I got to this question first as it probably isn’t one that many people have contemplated.

Cartoon by Mark Carnall of a moon made of cephalopods

Calamari Moon by Mark Carnall (Own work) CC BY 2.0 but let me know if you do!

I’ve been reading the excellent book- The Search for the Giant Squid by Richard Ellis which gives a comprehensive account of the biology and mythology surrounding giant squid, Architeuthis dux and related species up to 1998. The book covers the earliest accounts of encounters of giant squid; an examination of tall tales about large cephalopod encounters; giant squid in literature and film; and a really nice history of giant squid models in museums. Despite being one of the largest living invertebrates, very little is still known about giant squid including how their arch-enemies, the not-so-small-themselves cetaceans, sperm whales, catch them.

In the dark depths of the ocean how do essentially blind, breath-holding, large sperm whales catch highly manoeuvrable, fast, super-sensed giant squid? How do they catch them with their weird toothed mandible especially considering that giant squid retrieved from sperm whale stomachs don’t have any bite marks? And what does any of this have to do with the Moon? Continue reading

Cephalopod Watch:Weeds of the sea and the <Gene diet

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 Continue reading