Cephalopod Awareness Days: Wandering the Wet Collection
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.