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Scientists Learn How to Put an Octopus to Sleep

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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octopus anesthesia sleep

One of the octopuses in Grasso's Brooklyn College lab that will help us learn about how best to use anesthesia in octopuses; image courtesy of Katherine Harmon Courage

We can’t really ask an octopus to count backward from 10. Which is just one of the tricky things about putting an octopus under.

If knocking an octopus out (for science) sounds like an unusual procedure, well, it is. But it’s likely going to get a lot more common in labs around the world.

Canada, the European Union and the U.K. have decided that the octopus, with all of its cognitive and behavioral complexity, should really be treated a bit more carefully in the lab than some of its more cognitively humble mollusk relatives. In fact, the octopus has been declared an honorary vertebrate—as far as its treatment goes.

“Experimentation with animals is always something that has to be handled ethically and appropriately,” Frank Grasso director of Brooklyn College’s Biomemetic and Cognitive Robotics Lab, explained earlier this month at an event in New York City. “And the smarter octopuses appear to us, the more evidence we have for their intelligence, the more we can’t treat them like snails.”

With the increasing insistence that octopuses ought to be granted more consideration, comes the question of just how to make their experience less distressing. Not to mention the urgent scientific question of what effects the anesthesia might have on the octopuses. “This is a new field to work in,” Grasso noted. “And it is an ethical imperative now.”

While we are pretty adept at anesthetizing mice and monkeys, the mollusk body works so differently that human researchers are sill largely in the dark. “We have a tremendous problem in terms of ignorance of knowing what’s right to do with octopuses and wrong,” Grasso said. So his team has been trying to suss out this slippery issue.

As Grasso explained: “The octopuses that have come into my laboratory right now are going through a series of rigorous examinations to be able to assess whether or not these anesthetics—that have been used since the 1930s and have really not been examined—are in fact helpful to the animals, have long-term deleterious effects, and, in fact are ethical to use.”

And ethics come into play simply when handling these animals.

“If an animal is going to be experiencing some kind of procedure that is unpleasant, you would want to minimize the animal’s distress,” Grasso said. Even for un-invasive procedures, an encounter with a scientist is likely no day at the spa for the octopus, which Grasso describes as, basically, “a bowl of jelly.” Simply “the ability to try to hold it steady long enough can be rather difficult. So you like to have a general anesthetic…so that the animal isn’t stressed out by the experimenter wrestling with it.”

In anecdotal observations, Grasso notes, he and his colleagues have noticed behavioral changes in their octopuses at Brooklyn College after an anesthesia treatment. But there is still much to learn about putting octopuses safely to sleep (and waking them back up again).

“This work is so fresh right now, it’s hard to know what’s going to ultimately happen,” Brooklyn College graduate researcher Olivia Mae Davis told The Columbia Chronicle earlier this month. “But it will affect laws, policies, the lives of the animals and humans as well.”

To read more about the adventures of experimenting with octopuses, pick up Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea.

Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rufusgwarren 3:23 pm 04/29/2014

    Would it make more sense to seek communication. If it can figure out how to ask for food then we should leave it be.

    Link to this

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