>Throughout dark corridors in holding tanks bathed in eerie pink and blue LED lights is a growing army of hatchlings, ravenous juveniles and elusive, shape-shifting adults that represent some of the most otherworldly life forms on this planet.
>Over the past two years Paul Clarkson, the aquarium's curator of husbandry operations, and his team have been engaged in a reproductive experiment of unprecedented proportions. Their goal: to breed and raise more than two dozen species of cephalopods, the ancient class of mollusks that includes octopuses, squid and cuttlefishes.
>"Tentacles: The Astounding Lives of Octopuses, Squid and Cuttlefishes" features more than 30 species of cephalopod that will rotate through a dozen aquatic displays. The animals hail from disparate locations ranging from the tropical Indian Ocean to the frigid, sunless depths of Monterey Bay. Nearly 5 million visitors are expected to view the almost 4,000-square-foot exhibition.
>There is also a pair of giant Pacific octopuses, a rarely seen chambered nautilus (which may have up to 90 tentacles) and various deep-sea cephalopods, including vampire squid collected from Monterey Bay by the aquarium's sister organization, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). Most of these animals have never before been exhibited.
>Cephalopods were once a dominant form of life on the planet, and some biologists believe they are poised for a resurgence. These stealthy marine animals boast large, intelligent brains, complex nervous systems, highly-developed senses and the ability to instantaneously change color, pattern and form in response to stimuli. They play a crucial role in marine food webs as both predators and prey in every ocean in the world from the shallows to the abyssal depths. Humans alone consume more than 2.2 billion pounds of cephalopods a year.
>Though the number of cephalopod species (some 800 and counting) is dwarfed by the more than 30,000 species of fish, biologists suspect that their biomass is roughly the same, and there is evidence that biomass is increasing.
>MBARI researchers also recently deduced that the vampire squid, which was identified nearly a century ago, is a detritus-feeder, making it the only cephalopod known to eat nonliving food. Others discovered that although fast-swimming Humboldt squid are able to tolerate low-oxygen zones (which are increasing as a result of climate change), they are highly sensitive to the corresponding increases in shallow-water carbon-dioxide levels, which is forcing them into different regions of the ocean. Scientists are only now beginning to understand the impacts of pollution, overfishing and habitat destruction on these soft-bodied fauna.
>As senior exhibit developer Jaci Tomulonis explained to me, "We have more success with our conservation message when we give visitors affective experiences with poetry, music, visual arts and humor and offer them concrete steps they can take."
>Check Out the Tentacles Video Playlist
>© Alert Diver — Spring 2014