Friday, June 26, 2015

Precious Argo

How's the old saying go? "If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it's probably a duck."

Courtesy: Derek Bruff via Flickr

By extension I can imagine this test applies to any animal. Let's pick a random one and try it, shall we? If it looks like a..... Nautilus, swims like a nautilus, and has a shell like a nautilus it must be a nautilus. 

"Oh my God! What did you just call me!?"
Courtesy: Michael Vecchione via

Oh yeah I'm sorry, paper nauti..... I mean greater argonaut (Argonauta argo). I totally forgot about you. How about I make the rest of this post about how awesome you, and the other three species in your family, are to make up for it?

"We can live with that. I'll just sit here and make sure you
 don't mess up again"
Courtesy: NOAA Photo Library via Flickr

Okay where to start? Well, how about at the very beginning like my nanny used to say. Disclaimer: My nanny may have just been Julie Andrews movies. Anyway, we've known about argonauts for an incredibly long time. Their delicate, paper-thin, shells have been found painted on artifacts from 4000 years ago! Of course, back then we barely knew anything about these animals because we were mostly finding their old shells washed up on the beach. 

However many of the ancient Greeks were talented naturalists, and they started looking closer at these coiled beauties. Aristotle noticed that the argonauts could climb out of their shells because they aren't attached to them like a true nautilus or any other shelled mollusk. So how did Aristotle think argonauts got their shell? Well he assumed they stole it. For the longest time scientists thought that argonauts couldn't be making their own shells, so they were taking them from an unknown animal and using them as boats. Now this seems a little crazy, but add in the fact that female argonauts have sail-like webs on two of their arms, and you have the perfect animal to send after the golden fleece

Hahaha...What is it even...? Hahaha...There's a boat to compare it to..Hahahaha!
Bless you for this: Gerard Van der Leun, via Flickr

Although the theory that argonauts combined Grand Theft Auto and that pirate Assassin's Creed (Hold on I have to go pitch an idea to Microsoft) persisted well into the 1800's, eventually science started to sober up. We later discovered that female argonauts make the shells using glands in their webs that secret calcite. They spread these webs out over the shell and lay down material bit-by-bit like nature's 3D printer. 

 On the left you can see the webs with chromatophores, extended over the shell.
On the right this female has pulled the webs back, exposing her construction.
Courtesy: Michael Vecchione via

 If you're an astute reader, you've probably noticed that I've only mentioned female argonauts so far. This follows the history of these animals because for the longest time we had no idea what the males looked like. Why? You might ask, well they're tiny, like really tiny, only 1% the size of a female, and the biggest species' female only gets to 30cm across. Plus the males don't build shells, oh and sometimes they only have seven arms.

See argonauts are octopuses, and they normally have eight arms like any of their relatives. However one of a male octopuses arms is very different from the others. The third arm on his right side is called a hectocotylus (pronounced: heck-toe-cot-oh-luss) and it's used for reproduction. The males of most bottom-dwelling octopuses insert their hectocotylus into the female's gill opening; and sit there for a bit while a packet of sperm passes from inside his body, down the arm, and into the female's oviduct. Argonauts don't have the luxury of that kind of time though. They differ from their cousins by living up in the water column, instead of down on the sand. Living in the open ocean is great way of avoiding competition with your cousins down below, but it also means you have to travel far and quick to find food, mates, and shelter. 

Because the ocean is so big, and argonauts so small, males may not have many chances to find a female. To make sure they mate effectively the male argonaut's hectocotylus actually breaks off inside the female's body cavity, and he swims away. By embedding his sperm delivery system in the female, the male has insured that it's his DNA that fertilizes the eggs. Plus it's a great way to screw with naturalists. This is not a joke, the scientist who first found a hectocotylus buried in a female argonaut thought it was a parasitic worm!

 Plus what the hell do we call this thing, a septopus?
The eighth arm is kept inside that pouch.
Courtesy: Edwald Rubsamen via Wikimedia Commons and Public Domain

Now here's where the functional beauty of the female's shell can accompany its aesthetic beauty. Since she lives up in the water there's very little to attach her eggs to, and good material could be floating hundreds of miles from the female argonaut, so she lays her eggs right inside the shell. Female argonauts handcraft baby strollers to push their kids around in until they hatch. Not only that, but the shape of the shell allows the female to trap air in its top which helps counter-act the weight of her body and the eggs; and keeps her from rising or sinking too fast. 

You can see the eggs hanging out of the lower part of this female's shell.
She's new to this whole arts and crafts thing.
Courtesy: Bernd Hoffman via Wikimedia Commons

So how'd I do argonaut? Did we cover everything that makes you so cool? Be fair, we don't know much about you since you're all so small and you live in oceans around the entire world.

Whoooo! Nice work! Go team Argo! High eights all around!
Courtesy A.E Verrill via Wikimedia Commons and Public Domain


Finn, Julian K., "Taxonomy and Biology of the Argonauts (Cephalopoda: Argonautidae) with Particular Reference to Australian Material", Molluscan Research, 2013, Vol. 33, No. 3, 143-222.

Heeger, T., Piatowski U., & Moller, H., "Predation on Jellyfish by the Cephalopod Argonauta argo", Marine ecology Progress Series, Vol. 88, 293-296, 1992.

Orenstein, Marcie, "Marine Invertebrates of Bermuda: Paper Nautilus (Argonauta argo)", The Cephalopod Page

Mangold, K., Vecchione, M., & Young, R., "Argonautidae", Tree of Life Project

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