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Cephalopod Awareness Days: Wandering the Wet Collection

October 9, 2013
Photo of jars of alien- like cephalopods in the Aquatic Invertebrate Collections. Glass jars or sitting in brown boxes on metal shelves. Photo by Trish Weaver

Jars of alien-like cephalopods in the Aquatic Invertebrate Collections. Photo by Trish Weaver

Greetings Blogophiles! I hope your search for cephalopods is going well. Today for a change of scenery I wandered over to the Museum’s Research Lab to see if I could find any cephalopods there to be aware of.  Because one can’t just roam freely around the Museum collections, I called on Jamie Smith, Collections Manager of Invertebrates to be my guide. Though they do not have an extensive collection of cephalopods, they do have some very interesting ones.

Photo of a preserved squid in a jar. The jar has a white label with writing on it, the squid is cream colored and sort of looks like it is waving its arms in celebration of Cephalopod Awareness Days. Photo by Trish Weaver

A preserved squid in a jar. Looks like it is waving its arms in celebration of Cephalopod Awareness Days. Photo by Trish Weaver

For those of you who have never been behind the scenes at a museum, it is important to note that what most museums put on exhibit is only a very small fraction of what is actually in their collections. Most science museums have both wet and dry collections and frequently because of storage and safety concerns, wet collections (those preserved in ethanol) are stored in a separate building. Even though I work with fossil cephalopods, I rarely visit our extant organisms collections, so today’s trek was a real treat for me.

Photo of a jar full of "pickled squid." The squid in the jar are brownish-yellow. The jar has a white label with writing on it and the Jar is sitting on a piece of paper with writing on it. The contents of this jar look really tasty to me. Photo by Trish Weaver

A jar full of “pickled squid.” The contents of this jar look really tasty to me. Photo by Trish Weaver

Upon my arrival at the Research Lab, I was escorted into the Aquatic Invertebrate Collections area where there are several shelves of alien-looking cephalopods in jars. Unfortunately I didn’t eat breakfast before I started searching for cephalopods and seeing all those “pickled squid” made me very, very hungry. Technically the specimens in the wet collection are not actually “pickled.” They are stored in ethanol and I would have made myself very, very sick if I had popped one out of the jar and eaten it.

Photo of a preserved cuttlefish that Jamie graciously removed from its jar. The cuttlefish is gray on a white background. Note it is missing one of its long tentacles. Photo by Trish Weaver

Preserved cuttlefish that Jamie graciously removed from its jar. Note it is missing one of its long tentacles. Photo by Trish Weaver

Because, I am a paleontologist, I know very little about how extant specimens are preserved so I asked Jamie about it. She told me that wet specimens are stored in ethanol. However, if they want to study their anatomy, they “fix” specimens in formalin. However, they do not store specimens in formalin because over time formalin breaks down calcium in the tissues and you end up with jars of goo.  Mmm jars of goo … guess I’m still hungry. I also learned that while the cephalopod is in formalin (from 12 hours to one week depending on size) you have to pay special attention to make sure not to leave it in too long because the tentacles have a tendency to curl up.  A lot of people actually put the cephalopods they want to preserve in freshwater first to “drown” them, this way they are less likely to shrivel when put in formalin.  Others massage the tentacles and arms while fixing the specimens. Once the specimens are “fixed” they wash them in water, then store them in ethanol. Dang! Not only am I hungry, I also want a tentacle massage.

Photo of a close-up of a cuttlefish in a jar. Looks like an alien to me. Photo by Trish Weaver

Close-up of a cuttlefish in a jar. Looks like an alien to me. Photo by Trish Weaver

Right … back to my search for cephalopods.  As I was saying, the Aquatic Invertebrate Collection has octopuses, squid, cuttlefish and even an argonaut in jars. Yes! Finally a cuttlefish — I can check that off my list — and a bonus argonaut … Woo Hoo! In case you don’t know what argonauts are, they are more commonly called paper nautiluses. They are not nautiluses. They are actually an octopus that has a “paper-like” shell it wedges itself into and out of.  Perhaps argonauts were the inspiration for the first mobile home … or not.

Photo of a paper nautilus or argonaut outside of its shell.  The animal is on the left side, the shell is on the right. Photo by Trish Weaver

A paper nautilus or argonaut outside of its shell. Photo by Trish Weaver

Not only does the Aquatic Invertebrate Collection have shelves full of alien-looking cephalopods in jars, they also have dried specimens. Score! The dried octopus specimen is one of the most fascinating things I’ve seen in a long time. Seriously, this is the kind of specimen that could launch a thousand science fiction stories. Please feel free to write one and send it to me. I could use something compelling to read while I eat calamari and get my tentacles massaged. Jamie tells me she is unsure how this specimen was dried, as it came to the Museum that way.  You got to figure there was some chemical or ultra-cold freezer involved, because leaving your octopus out in the sun to dry would smell really bad and would attract all kinds of scavengers.

Photo of a dried octopus. The octopus is cream colored and is sitting on a blue background. This has got to be one of the best things I have ever seen. Photo by Trish Weaver

Dried octopus. This has got to be one of the best things I have ever seen. Photo by Trish Weaver

Lastly, the Aquatic Invertebrate Collection has shells of cephalopods. I was particularly happy to see shells of Spirula spirula. Spirulids are extant cephalopods with a coiled internal shell. Though the shells may look similar to gastropod (snail) shells the critters are distinctly different. Among other things, snails have shells on the outside and they don’t have arms. Spirulids are their own order of cephalopod and their internal shell is used to control buoyancy.

Photo of three spirulid shells. The spirulids shell are at the top of the photo and there is a label beneath them. Photo by Trish Weaver

Three spirulid shells. Photo by Trish Weaver

This concludes my search for cephalopods at the Research Lab. On the whole I found the experience very educational and am very grateful to Jamie for showing me around. Next time I visit I will try to remember to eat breakfast first so I won’t spend the day craving ceviche. Tune in next time when I search for cephalopods in the Paleontology Collection.

Photo of a chambered nautilus shell and cross section to show the chambers. The complete shell is to the left of the image and is white with brown patterns and a black portion. The cross-section is on the right side of the image. Photo by Trish Weaver

Chambered nautilus shell and cross section to show the chambers. Photo by Trish Weaver

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