Shape-Shifting Octopuses Endangered by Blog Stardom? (Video)


Photos: Stephen Childs Flickr, CC BY

Today, a link soared to the top of the popular news aggregator Reddit, with the text "This is, by far, the world's coolest animal. Behold: The Mimic Octopus. It's hardly an exaggeration -- the mimic octopus is a cephalopod found in the waters around Southeast Asia, and it can literally shift its shape to mimic a number of other sea creatures, as you'll see in the video below. All this attention, however, has some biologists worried -- there's already a steep bounty placed on the mimic octopus from private collectors, and increased demand could endanger the rare animal. You can't blame folks for forwarding this link, though. I mean, seriously, look at this thing:

Officially discovered in 1998, the mimic octopus grows to be about two feet long. In its normal state, it boasts brown and white stripes and spots. But it can take on the shape of up to 15 different sea creatures, largely for defensive purposes. Some of its forms haven't even been pinned down, like the weird seaweed-with-human-legs form you can see it take on above. There's no doubt that this thing is pretty incredible. But that might be part of its problem now.

In an article published on The Cephalopod Page, called Mimic Octopuses: Will we love them to death?, Dr. Dr. Roy Caldwell describes the problem:

There is no question that the mimic octopus and its relatives such as wunderpus are remarkable animals ... However, as the animals become better known, they are also becoming more desirable for public aquarists, scientists and hobbyists alike. The pressures to acquire and attempt to keep and display them are rapidly increasing. It is not uncommon to see requests for such animals and often the amount of money offered for them is staggering - $100 and up. At this point, I think we should all take a deep breath and think seriously about the biology of this species, what such bounties are likely to mean for its survival, and what motivates us to want a mimic for our very own.


Photo: Steve Childs, Wikimedia, Creative Commons

Because of the combined factors of this octopus's scarcity and its growing notoriety -- helped along by becoming the focus of an incipient blog meme (and here I am participating ...) -- Caldwell argues that under no circumstances should this creature be kept as a pet.

It's an interesting link to ponder, between the cute-animal-gone-viral and actual increased commercial demand and poaching for the animals being bandied about on the blogosphere. The impact of such a connection has probably been minimal so far, but it could be a force to consider in the near future -- as we all know, there are few things the web delights in more than fawning over cool-looking animals. For the time being, however, suffice to say that the mimic octopus kicks ass.

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