A Blue View: Dumbo Octopus

Spot a dumbo octopus and you’ll immediately understand where it gets its name—its set of ear-like fins reminds spectators of Walt Disney’s famous flying elephant.

Published March 08, 2016

Dumbo octopus. Image via National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Image via NOAA.

Dumbo octopuses occupy one of the greatest depths of any known octopus species. Living 9,800 to 13,000 feet below the surface, they’ve adapted to the intense pressure and cold temperatures of the deep ocean 

They are typically found swimming just above the seafloor, where they feed on worms, snails and other pelagic invertebrates. The species’ mantle fins help it traverse the ocean’s depths—it flaps the ear-like fins and uses its webbed tentacles to move through the water.

via GIPHY

Learn more about the rare dumbo octopus in this week’s A Blue View:

Episode Transcript

In the vast midwaters of the open ocean, there’s an animal so adorable that the Smithsonian Institution’s website said, “If this video doesn't inspire a whole cadre of budding teuthologists, we don't know what will.”

Any amateur teuthologists out there want to hazard a guess as to what group of animals they’re referring? Here’s a hint: teuthology is the study of squids and octopuses. Need another? These strange cephalopods have round, doe-like eyes, and flaps on their head that look for all the world like the ears of a baby elephant.

They’re called the dumbo octopuses, so named for Disney’s shy little flying elephant…and the 18 known species of dumbos are so darn cute that even hard-boiled professional marine biologists who observe them have been known to resort to very unscientific words like “adorable” to describe them.

The dumbos are categorized as “umbrella octopuses” in recognition of their un-octopus-like webbed arms that do indeed resemble umbrellas. Some species are short, squat and yellow, while others resemble a jellyfish with one big brown walking shoe. In contrast to their better-known cousins like the Great Pacific Octopus, dumbos lack ink sacks and have few suckers on their eight arms.

Though mostly diminutive at 8 to 12 inches in length, one specimen of dumbo octopus measured 6 feet! They're also found all over the world, including the Philippines, New Guinea, New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific Northwest and even off the coast of Martha's Vineyard. But, you’re not likely to spot one on your next diving vacation…The dumbo octopus is one of the rarest species of octopus, and it resides on the seafloor or just above it at depths of 13,000 feet —some live as deep as 2.5 miles down!

The deepest-diving of all octopods, dumbos can stand pressures of more than 5,000 pounds per square inch. Among their many distinctions, dumbo octopuses also have one of the most unusual breeding attributes in the sea, as females have no breeding season. They lay eggs continuously, year-round, in quantities that nobody has yet been able quantify, though deep-sea scientists believe this unique strategy allows the dumbos to reproduce at a pace far greater than most octopus species.

Their methods of locomotion are also uncommon in the world of octopods…rather than rely on jet propulsion like many of their kin, dumbo octopuses slowly flap their ear-°©like fins to "fly" through the water, or drift passively in the water column like an opened umbrella. Their fleshy arms serve myriad purposes—helping the animal capture prey, lay eggs, explore and steer its body as it’s propelled across the seafloor. The arms can even be used for hiding, enveloping the rest of the octopus when it wants to avoid detection.

Some dumbos are also thought to be bioluminescent, producing their own light in the inky darkness of the deep. Dumbo octopuses are surprise feeders, pouncing on prey and swallowing it whole. On the menu? Not much. As these animals live at the bottom of the sea, they have a very small food supply that includes crustaceans, mollusks and bristle worms. So…whether you aspire to be a teuthologist or not, you can learn much more about these adorable critters and watch their mesmerizing benthic ballet at aqua.org/ablueview.

A Blue View is produced for WYPR by the National Aquarium, whose mission is to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures. For the National Aquarium, I’m John Racanelli.

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