This is the tale where we uncover if Kraken are aliens after all…
So… by now you may have seen enough things on this blog to join marine biologists and, well, pretty much everyone else who’s ever encountered one of the tentacled beasties in the wild, asking themselves: “Are these things really from this Planet or are they aliens from outer space?”
We definitely know that our friend Dread Lord Cthulhu has descended from outer space many dread millennia ago [you will be able to read more about “Cthulhu’s family tree” soon]. But, the answer isn’t quite as clear cut for the Kraken. It is, after all a master of camouflage and so may have just managed to camouflage itself to seem to be of this world. To seem more like his boring cousins the clams, maybe?
But, aren’t they, like, super weird?
Well, yes. It isn’t just that they are different to most life forms on this planet (and more frighteningly smarter!). With their 8 arms that have a mind of their own, their ability to squeeze through the tiniest of cracks, and their insane problem-solving, tool-using and technology-sabotaging abilities, they are pretty much the pinnacle of weird life on Earth. They seem conscious, very conscious. They certainly vex, and maybe even bewitch us humans. Hell, they even seem to use weapons to engage in warfare now! Maybe it’s time to pack our bags…
In fact, Kraken defy all current logic on how intelligence arises: You need to live long (nope), be social (definitely not), rear your young and teach them things in childhood (nuh-uh) and preferably be a mammal or at least a vertebrate (yeah, nah) to join the club of the super smart beings on Earth. The complex topic of Kraken intelligence (and how to compare it with others) will also be raised in the [“Are Kraken smarter than us?” blog].
“If we’re looking for intelligent aliens that are vastly different from us, put us out of our comfort zone, frighten us, repulse us, amaze us, challenge our notions of intelligence, or remind us of a world vastly different from our own, we don’t have to look very far. Our fascinating cephalopod friends provide a wealth of inspiration.”
So… if it’s not their intelligence or their looks, why do researchers think they are aliens?
This headline, which went around the world, refers to a scientific publication describing the way octopuses code their genes. Researchers have found a new map of the octopus genetic code that is so strange it could actually be “alien”.
The first whole cephalopod genome sequence shows a striking level of complexity with 33,000 protein-coding genes identified. This is more than in a human.
“In uncovering the sequence, scientists found that octopuses have a similar set of genes to those found in humans, that make up a neural network in their brains, which accounts for their quick ability to adapt and learn. We also share a large brain, closed circulatory system, and eyes with an iris, retina, and lens. All of these independently developed in another species vastly different from our own mammal origins.”
These genes join the list of independently-evolved features humans share with octopuses. These include camera-type eyes (with a lens, iris and retina), closed circulatory systems and large brains.
But it wasn’t just their DNA sequence that was striking, it was also what it said about their amazing ability to camouflage:
“Researchers have been unsure how octopuses orchestrate their chromatophores, the pigment-filled sacs that expand and contract in milliseconds to alter their overall color and patterning. But with the sequenced genome in hand, scientists can now learn more about how this flashy system works—an enticing insight for neuroscientists and engineers alike.”
Yup, Kraken-inspired ‘camo gear’ is soon going to be out of this world…
But wait, there’s more!
The clever Krakenologists* have also uncovered that cephalopods can taste with their suckers! And one neuroscientist says that if you want to find out what aliens would think like, you should go no further than an octopus. But most impressive by far, and probably the reason why those ideas about aliens came about, is their ability to edit their own genes. Their astonishing ability to ‘defy their own Neo-Darwinism‘ leads to this question:
“Are octopuses so clever because they ignore their genetic programming? Research has shown that octopuses and other cephalopods edit the messages sent from their DNA instead of following them almost exactly like most living things usually do.
The implications for Darwin’s tree of life are clear. Check out this talking point: “Cephalopods probably chose to take this RNA bargain over genome evolution, and maybe vertebrates made the other choice — they preferred genome evolution over editing.” They chose? That sounds like intelligent design by the spirits of cephalopods, playing their own evolutionary strategy against the rules of the game established by Darwin.”
So yeah, the Kraken easily outwits Darwin, who’s generally known as one of Earth’s most outstanding biologists…
So, what is the actual story?
Why are they able to do this crazy thing then? We don’t fully know yet, but there are several hypotheses:
- Octopuses use RNA editing to rapidly adapt to temperature changes which could make them even more ace at dealing with global horrors like climate change or ocean acidification. This opens the door for a Kraken takeover once we screwed the planet up enough.
- The RNA editing process, which occurs largely in the brain tissue, may help give some cephalopods (but not others!) their smarts.
- It certainly makes them incredibly flexible and adaptable, much more than other species that are dependent on mutation of their hard-wired DNA.
- On the other hand, this also means they can’t evolve via genetic mutation. This may mean their evolution is stunted (but they’re pretty perfect. In my eyes, anyway).
But, and there is always a but with biology, cephalopods may not really come from outer space. There is, as usual, some boring nerd raining on our parade, rejecting that exciting notion. In a post called “Tentacle Scorn” (great title by the way!), they ascribe it to a joke made by one of the original researchers. Prof Clifton Ragsdale made this throw-away comment, which got everyone so excited:
“The late British zoologist Martin Wells said the octopus is an alien. In this sense, then, our paper describes the first sequenced genome from an alien.”
So, there you have it. No Kraken alien, despite what all that fun pop culture and overhyped science reporting told us.
But then, I witnessed what my own tentacled lair mates, the Kraken and Cthulhu, got up to the other weekend. I’d say it looks very much like an alien summoning ritual…