Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Australian 'Gloomy Octopus' Leads Murky Wave of Climate Change Invasions

Oceans
Australian 'Gloomy Octopus' Leads Murky Wave of Climate Change Invasions
Gloomy octopuses have expanded down the East Coast of Australia in recent years. Here, one recovers from tissue sampling, aimed to uncover the mysteries of their move. Colin Silvey

By Amy McDermott

Gloomy octopuses used to blend in. They were just another cephalopod, drab-gray and medium-bodied, living in the ocean off east-central Australia. Until, a few decades ago, the octopuses started to spread.

They crept south, establishing populations down Australia's East Coast, a climate change hotspot where seawater temperatures are rising almost four times faster than the global average. Gloomies love the heat—and chowing down on shellfish. If the newcomers' appetites disrupt existing fisheries, researchers say, they could spell trouble.


In Australia and around the world, ocean animals are relocating because of climate change, often with consequences for fisheries. Gloomy octopuses are just one of many marine species on the move. Their expansion is a harbinger of what's to come in places warming slower than Australia. Forget blending in, climate consequences have arrived.

Lives in Motion

It happened fast.

Gloomy octopuses (named for their ghostly-white eyes) spread steadily south in the last two decades, said fisheries scientist Brad Moore of the University of Tasmania in Hobart. Gloomies are naturally found in central-eastern Australia, but appeared hundreds of miles south in Victoria after 2000, and even further down, off the island of Tasmania in 2006. Three years later, Moore said, the species was included in Tasmania's fisheries guidebook.

Recreational fishermen and divers also noticed gloomies out of place, and reported sightings as part of an Australian citizen science project called Redmap, which tracks marine species on the move.

"People send in photo observations," said marine ecologist Gretta Pecl, who started Redmap as part of her research at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania. "We get an early indication of what species might be shifting, and then we initiate a more targeted research study."

In the gloomy's case, commercial fishermen and citizen scientist observations tipped off Pecl's team, and inspired a genetic study published Friday, led by marine biologist Jorge Ramos, which confirms a rapid and recent expansion south.

Gloomies would be easy to overlook, if not for their white eyes.Colin Silvey

Tentacled Tides

Gloomies can thank climate change for their new digs. Global warming affects ocean currents, including one that runs down the East Coast of Australia. The East Australian Current has extended farther and farther south over the last 50 years.

"We believe it's moving species into Tasmanian waters," Ramos said. Warm, strong flows act like a southerly conveyor belt for marine creatures, including the octopuses.

While gloomies are thriving, their arrival in Tasmania has some experts worried. Abalone and rock lobster are the two largest commercial wild fisheries for the island, making up more than 75 percent of landings by weight. Both could suffer, Ramos said, if the octopus eats too many of the shellfish. Abalone and oysters are already struggling through marine heatwaves, caused by the growing warm current. Another problem is the last thing they need.

Not everyone is so worried. Craig Hardy is an octopus fisherman in Stanley, Tasmania, where he's seen gloomies off the island's northern tip for about 10 years—as long as he's been fishing up there. Hardy was the first to hunt octopus in the area, he said, and suspects the gloomies were around all along, but people just hadn't seen them.

That's possible, Ramos agreed, but he thinks the current swept more octopuses down in the last decade. Based on his genetic work, Ramos would "guess the species was there, but in low numbers, and now it's becoming more common."

Octopus fishing is decent business in Tasmania. After abalone and lobster, it accounts for 11 percent of remaining landings by weight. Fishermen like Hardy haven't historically caught gloomies. Most of their catch is a smaller, native species. But the newcomer is becoming an attractive target, Hardy said, because of its size. Gloomies are common in markets on the mainland up north, and Hardy's found them "a good species to sell."

The gloomy octopus isn't the only stranger in Tasmanian waters. The East Australian Current has washed more than 70 species south in recent years. Some, like the long-spined sea urchin, have wrought havoc upon arrival. Others have been less damaging, but they all bring new considerations. Critters will keep coming down the coast in the next 50 years, fisheries scientist Moore expects, making Tasmania's coast more like the eastern mainland's as time goes by.

Australia and its gloomy octopus are a parable of things to come, in many slower-warming places. Along the West Coast of North America, for example, some fish could shift more than 900 miles this century under a high emissions scenario. Even if change hasn't come yet, "there's a lot of evidence to say things will change," Moore said. "It's about getting ready."

A gloomy octopus recovers after genetic sampling in Cape Conran, Australia. Octopuses can regrow tissue, so a "piece of arm will grow back," Ramos said.Colin Silvey

Florida Wildlife Federation / NBC2News / YouTube

In a dramatic rescue captured on camera, a Florida man ran into a pond and pried open an alligator's mouth in order to rescue his beloved puppy, all without dropping his cigar.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Imagesines / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.

When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."

Read More Show Less

Trending

Fossil fuel companies received $110 billion in direct and indirect financial assistance during the coronavirus pandemic, including up to $15.2 billion in direct federal relief. Andrew Hart /

By Bret Wilkins

In a year in which the United States has already suffered 16 climate-driven extreme weather events causing more than $1 billion in economic damages, and as millions of American workers face loss of essential unemployment benefits due to congressional inaction, a report published Monday reveals the Trump administration has given fossil fuel companies as much as $15.2 billion in direct relief — and tens of billions more indirectly — through federal COVID-19 recovery programs since March.

Read More Show Less
Flint corn is an example of pre-contact food. Elenathewise / Getty Images

By Ashia Aubourg

As Thanksgiving approaches, some Indigenous organizations and activists caution against perpetuating further injustices towards Native communities. Indigenous activist Mariah Gladstone, for example, encourages eaters to celebrate the harvest time in ways that do not involve stereotypes and pilgrim stories.

Read More Show Less

By Alex Middleton

Losing weight and reducing fat is a hard battle to fight. Thankfully, there are fat burner supplements that help you gain your target body and goal. However, how would you know which supplement is right for you?

Read More Show Less