This is the first time a new octopus has been described using completely non-invasive imaging.
A new species of Dumbo octopus, equipped with telltale (and darling) fins on its head, has been dredged from the deep. Nicknamed the Emperor Dumbo, the adorable creature was discovered in 2016. Alexander Ziegler of Friedrich Wilhelm University in Bonn, Germany, was aboard the German survey ship R/V Sonne as the resident biologist when a strange creature was caught in one of its nets near the Aleutian Islands.
“It was a really lucky find,” Ziegler told Live Science, “because we weren’t really looking for it. Plus, the whole animal came to the surface intact.” Typically, such nets damage animals made predominantly of soft tissue, like octopuses. This one, however, was in immaculate condition — an impressive feat considering it was fished from the crushing depth of roughly 14,760 feet (4,500 meters).
On board the ship, Ziegler quickly determined that this was an adult male Dumbo octopus, which is a group of small, deep-sea octopuses. Dumbo octopus species can be identified by the umbrella-like webbing joining their tentacles and their cartoonishly ear-like fins that resemble the oversized ears on Disney’s Dumbo elephant character. (A more modern observer might be more likely to see a resemblance to Baby Yoda.)
Finding an intact Dumbo octopus is rare. They are the deepest-living octopuses known to science, and they are often dredged from the deep as fishing bycatch, often too damaged to be identified.
To identify an octopus to the species level, or to characterize it as a new species typically requires destructive techniques. “You have to look at the internal structure, which would mean disassembling the specimen in order to describe it,” Ziegler said.
Instead, Ziegler and his master’s student at the time, Christina Sagorny, currently a doctoral student in Ziegler’s lab, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) scans to noninvasively examine the internal organs and structure of the octopus without making a single cut except to extract a DNA sample.
By using these techniques, Sagorny and Ziegler found that their endearing deep-sea dweller didn’t match any known species. For one, the number of suckers on its tentacles, along with the shape of the gills and beak, suggested something totally new. “Christina [Sagorny] was calculating these values and counting the suckers when we realized it didn’t compare to other species,” Ziegler said. “That moment when we realized we were describing a new species, obviously, that was a pretty good moment.”
The duo named the species Grimpteuthis imperator, and Emperor Dumbo or Kaiser Dumbo as a proposed common name because the specimen was discovered along the slopes of the Emperor seamount chain in the Pacific Ocean.
At the moment, little is known about the Emperor Dumbo. But other Dumbo octopuses live on the seafloor, as deep as 23,000 feet (7,000 m). They survive by feeding on worms and shrimp-like crustaceans called amphipods that they trap by using their tentacle webbing as an umbrella to catch food. And because fast-moving predators are scarce in such nutrient-poor environments, these octopuses gave up their ability to release ink sometime in their evolutionary history.