‘Science Friday’ host shines a light on cephalopods

Ira Flatow, host and executive producer of “Science Friday,” recorded a radio show at the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science last week as part of a celebration of cephalopods—a marine invertebrate. The event was organized with South Florida’s local public radio affiliate, WLRN.
 Photo by Joshua Prezant/University of Miami—Cephalopod Week featuring Ira Flatow, left,  Lynne Fieber, middle,  professor of Marine Biology and Ecology, and Andrea Durant, righ, NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at the Rosenstiel School.
From left, Ira Flatow, host of "Science Friday," Lynne Fieber, professor of marine biology and ecology, and postdoctoral fellow Andrea Durant. Photo: Joshua Prezant/University of Miami

They are one of the most intelligent species in the ocean, but most mate just once before they die.

They also serve as small scale models for scientific research on the brain and nervous systems of larger creatures.

And they have been around for 500 million years. 

These are all characteristics of cephalopods, a type of marine invertebrate that the Science Friday program honors each June. Broadcast on National Public Radio, the popular show chose to kick off its annual Cephalopod Week at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science on Friday evening in collaboration with local NPR affiliate, WLRN.

“Every year in June we celebrate the diversity and incredible intelligence of cephalopods and since this is a place where a lot of cephalopod research is going on, we couldn’t think of a better place to go than a public radio station and a university on the water,” said Ira Flatow, “Science Friday’s” host and executive producer, who is known for his ability to make complex science palatable.

Flatow, whose voice has opened the afternoon show for 30 years, told the audience that he  always has loved the oceans, but cephalopods (pronounced se-fa-la-pod) are a favorite topic. Plus, he was tired of hearing about Shark Week.

“We’ve been obsessed with cephalopods for 10 years,” Flatow added. “And even though I have been doing it for a while, every time I talk to scientists about the oceans and cephalopods, I learn something new.”

Cephalopods are one class of a larger group of marine animals called mollusks, which include clams and sea snails too. While some of the most common cephalopods are octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid, the Rosenstiel School is home to the National Resource for Aplysia, which is  the only aquaculture facility for the California Sea Hare—Aplysia californica—a Pacific sea snail with some similar characteristics to cephalopods. 

Flatow spent about an hour and a half chatting with Lynne Fieber, a professor of marine biology and ecology who co-directs the National Resource for Aplysia at the Rosenstiel School, and has studied the nervous system of cephalopods and sea snails for more than three decades. He also spoke with Andrea Durant, a postdoctoral fellow in the Grosell Environmental Physiology and Toxicology Lab, who is studying how tiny glass squid are able to use the ammonia in their bodies to stay afloat in the deep ocean. Their conversations will be featured on a future “Science Friday,” which typically airs at 2 p.m. Fridays on WLRN.


When asked why she is interested in the California sea hare, Fieber spoke about using the reddish-brown creatures as a model to understand many different neurological processes, such as learning and memory. Besides her own work, the National Resource for Aplysia actually ships out more than 10,000 of the sea snails to medical researchers across the nation each year.

“The nervous system of all animals is basically the same from squid and octopus up to humans. So, if you want to understand how the nervous system operates on a basic level, looking at simple marine organisms is a great way to approach these ideas,” said Fieber, adding that the sea hare has just a few thousand nerve cells in its brain, compared to hundreds of millions inside an octopus, and 86 billion in the human brain. “If you want to know how learning happens or what a memory is, working in a simple animal where you can have just a few cells called neurons responsible for a behavior—that’s an advantage. It makes it easier to understand what causes behavior and learning.”

When Flatow asked how Fieber actually does this work, she explained that she puts a glass probe into the nerve cell of a sea hare, which helps her listen to the electricity of neurons communicating. “In a dark room, I listen to the brain talking to itself and it’s a tremendous amount of fun,” Fieber pointed out.

Flatow then queried Durant about her research with the glass squid, which are typically found far from the coast and about 5,000 feet below the surface. Durant explained that these tiny squid are intriguing because they conserve large amounts of ammonia, which is typically discarded from animals as a by-product when digesting protein. 

“They create a waste fluid [with ammonia] that is just a little bit less dense than seawater and it accounts for their body weight and gives them lift called neutral buoyancy—that is an advantage in the deep sea because then they can use less energy for swimming,” she said. “Ammonia is a common waste product in fish and humans, but these squid hold on to it in really high levels that would kill probably most cells and organs in other animals. And they do it in a specialized chamber that is not seen in many other squid families.”  

Audience members and Flatow peppered the scientists with questions about how their knowledge could be applied to octopuses. Fieber mentioned that most octopuses live only about a year. But during that short lifespan they are very busy, and learn to hunt, camouflage themselves from larger prey, and find a mate. 

“Octopuses have a programmed self-destruction that is hormonal. And when they become reproductively active at 10 to 11 months old, the hormones that are not normally coursing through their bloodstream become active and they literally kill themselves with these hormones,” Fieber said.

Octopuses in captivity have also shown their intelligence by recognizing their keepers. “I like to tell students that if octopuses lived for 100 years, they would take over the world,” Fieber said. “If they had more time to consolidate their knowledge, it would be amazing.”

The conversation drew a sold-out audience of “Science Friday” fans from Key Biscayne to Boca Raton and beyond.

Heather Rowe, a first-grade teacher from Hollywood, Florida, came with her teenage daughter Charlotte, and marveled at the chance to hold a California sea hare. Rowe listens to “Science Friday” often and shares the tidbits she learns with her students.

Rosenstiel School Dean Roni Avissar said that he hopes events like these will help demonstrate the strong acumen of his faculty to local residents.

“We have a great reputation with the scientific community, and each of our faculty members is a star in their field of expertise but that doesn’t always translate to the general public,” he said. “To have a show like ‘Science Friday’ and Ira Flatow come to Rosenstiel and highlight some of the research activities going on here is such an amazing opportunity. We are delighted to host this event.”

The dean’s aspiration was not lost on Dave Maichack, an avid boater, diver, and snorkeler from Key Biscayne, who has followed ‘Science Friday’ for years and is an active supporter of WLRN. He was energized by the show.

“I was so impressed by the two speakers—they are incredible scientists and I know a lot of the work that goes on here is more sophisticated than what we heard. Fieber seems like a spectacular scientist,” Maichack said.

Shelby Hoover, a researcher at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, Florida, came with her friend Caitlin Shea-Vantine, who works at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in the biology department. The two met in graduate school at FAU and both are fans of “Science Friday.” They even read a book together, “Remarkably Bright Creatures,” about octopuses.

“It’s been a treat to be here tonight,” said Shea-Vantine. “And I loved learning about the propulsion of pelagic squid that use waste for locomotion. It just showed me you can learn new things all the time.”