Visit to the NRCC (2002)

TONMO staffers Nancy and Colin visited the National Research Center for Cephalopods in 2002; this is their story.

Two moderators met face to face in the autumn of 2002: Colin Dunlop traveled from Scotland to Texas to help Nancy King set up her saltwater aquarium and to accompany Nancy and her husband Bill to Galveston, where Colin and Nancy visited the NRCC. This is a report of that visit.

By Colin Dunlop and Nancy King

Galveston Island is most famous for its hurricanes, its architecture and its sandy beaches. But did you know it is also the epicenter for cephalopod study? So we decided to visit this internationally-known cephalopod resource and research center, the NRCC, located on a barrier island about fifty miles from Houston in the city of Galveston.

As a branch of the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), secreted away along the side of a pier and barely identified by a small NRCC sticker near the door stands the place where so many cephalopod breakthroughs have been made. It is also the place where many documentaries such as Incredible Suckers have been filmed.

Finding it was not so easy. After a missing a 'promised un-missable' heli-pad several times and after a phone call to get more instructions, we eventually pulled up at the entrance to the NRCC. We were met at the door by John Forsythe, a noted research scientist who has worked in this department for twenty or so years. With John as our guide, we began the tour.

First on the menu was a species of squid local to the Gulf called Lolliguncala brevis. This species is kept in rounded vats to prevent the active, indeed acrobatic squid from damaging the back of their mantle when they dart about the water when they are frightened. These injuries can cause severe infections. The vat held a number of specimens and it was quite surprising to see just how transparent these animals actually were. John was able to point out the heart, the brain and even food being turned over within the squid's stomach... all this without the need for dissection or colored dyes.

These squid are caught using fine nets. We were told that the best specimens of squid are often found in catches where a lot of small fish are caught at the same time. This seems to offer a lot of cushioning to the squid preventing damage to their soft skin and mantle. Sending these squid out to other universities, mostly for medical research, seems to be almost a weekly affair and we did spot some boxes of live squid ready to be sent to some part of the USA or beyond.

At this point we were joined by Dr. James Wood, another scientist based at the NRCC. James was here to take over from John and continue the tour. It was really good to finally meet James because he is in charge of the CephBase and The Cephalopod Pages online. James is also heavily involved with CephList and is the backup person for the other email based service called FastMoll, which John Forsythe runs. He can also be frequently spotted contributing on the Message Board.

Next on our list of things to see was the Common European Cuttlefish Sepia officinalis. James was able to tell us that this batch of adult cuttlefish was probably on its 12 - 13th generation in captivity in the NRCC.

Again housed within large blue vats, these cuttlefish are the backbone (pun intended) of cephalopod research in the USA.

North America has no cuttlefish present in any of its shores. The NRCC is required by law to observe a very strict policy of never supplying animals to the hobby, only to scientific establishments with serious need for them. So, don't even think about pestering them for specimens, unless you work for an educational institution.

These cuttlefish were sexually mature adults right at the beginning of spawning activity. Many of them could be seen sporting their zebra pattern, which normally precedes spawning and is used to warn other males away.

The average length of these cuttlefish's mantle would have been in the region of 8 - 12 inches, although it is hard to tell when looking at them from above. The males are obviously bigger.

Due to the fact that tours of the NRCC are becoming more popular with schools, there are three tanks set up for a more traditional 'fish tank' look at cuttlefish. These aquariums stand approximately 5 feet tall and give the viewer a much better look at the cephs. The glass fronted panels allow the cuttlefish to be seen hovering in the water column and also for the cuttlefish to see you!

James threw in some live crabs and a couple of the cuttles behaved properly and used their feeding tentacles to snare their dinner.

Next to the cuttlefish display tank was another similarly sized aquarium stocked with some of the squid we saw earlier. A third tank was almost empty save an inch or two of water and, as we later found out, an Octopus bimaculoides refusing to be vacated from this display tank to make room for the NRCC's newest arrival, a Giant Pacific Octopus (GPO). We visited on the Tuesday and the GPO was arriving on the Thursday, so we were just a couple of days out with that one. Personal correspondence with James has confirmed that the GPO arrived safely!

During our visit, we were able to get a really good look at some captive Octopus bimaculoides (Bimacs). The NRCC currently has two near-adult specimens housed in aquariums. When we first looked, we could see one individual sitting within a clay flowerpot using two shells as a front door. Its eyes were about the only thing visible, peering over the top of the shells... as we waited, the octopus' curiosity got the better of it and eventually it clambered out of its den and onto the front glass. There it remained for the rest of the visit, keeping an eye on the strangers, it seems.

During the time spent in front of the Bimacs, James was able to explain the role of the NRCC. It has become important for the NRCC to become more and more heavily involved with education. (Hence the addition of the three display tanks. A fourth tank that normally houses an Octopus vulgaris is empty.) They will be using the premises to allow students more access to cephalopods and their uses in modern medicine.

James has recently received National Science Foundation (NSF) funding to create an edu web site for High School students. This will be called Ceph School and will be based on the CephBase database.

The last live exhibit we were able to see was the Nautilus in another display tank. Several of these floating cephalopods were hovering midwater and blankly staring into space. The nautilus tank has to be kept at a much cooler temperature than those for any of the other cephalopods at the NRCC, except for the new GPO. It is important for completeness to exhibit these ancient animals. However, they are not as showy as the other cephs and mostly act as an introduction to other animals, James explained, when students come for a tour.

There is in fact an unusually high concentration of octopuses in the NRCC. Not in the giant holding vats and in fact, nowhere near the water at all. This collection is probably the world's largest toy octopus collection and is found in James' office!

Taking up two full bookshelves and quite literally spilling onto the floor, walls, PC desk and every other table and desk in the office was a kaleidoscope of every conceivable shape, color and texture of octopus, with the odd can of imported calamari and fluffy cuttlefish... It is quite a visual feast and takes a lot of staring to take in. Dark glasses would have been handy as some of these toy cephs are pretty bright!

So ended a very interesting visit to the NRCC.
Dec 28, 2013
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