Dumbo Octopuses

Walt Disney Productions began an American institution in 1937 with the creation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Their initial animated feature still ranks tenth all-time in inflation-adjusted box-office gross, selling over 109 million tickets. Disney’s next two films, though now considered classic animations – Pinocchio and Fantasia – failed to provide the company with significant profits, thanks to World War II’s effect on leisure activities in Europe (both films would later sell well, ending up in the Top 50 for inflation-adjusted stats).

In 1941, though, the studio needed a hit. Their savior arrived in the form of a baby elephant with huge ears.

Based on a children’s book written by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, Dumbo is perhaps the OG modern bullying treatment. When Mrs. Jumbo, a circus elephant, receives a newborn from the baby-delivering storks, all the other pachyderms fawn over Jumbo Junior until they get a gander at the size of Jumbo’s ears. They are gargantuan. Acting more like donkeys than elephants, one of the gawkers quips, “Jumbo? You mean Dumbo.” The others erupt in uproarious laughter. Why do big ears equate to dumbness? That answer is beyond the purview of this article. No matter the reason behind the epithet, Dumbo becomes the outcast of the circus, except for his mother and a mouse named Timothy. In a modern version of the subject, Bluey asks her dad Bandit if she’s “different” like the monkey they’re watching in a film is different. Bandit replies, “Look, mate, I’m pretty sure that by the end of the movie, everyone will like that the monkey was different.” By the end of Dumbo, the tiny elephant learns his big ears allow him to fly, which signals fame and fortune to Timothy. Eventually, Dumbo becomes the star. Bluey’s Dad is becoming the next iteration of xkcd: there’s one for every topic.

The behavior in Dumbo is particularly dumb because the tiny guy is adorable, whether the ears are hidden or flapping like flags.

Case in point, as humans probed deeper and deeper into the ocean, we discovered a group of octopuses that sport an unusual yet precious anatomical feature. These cephalopods make nearly everyone who sees them say “aww.”

Seventeen species of octopus in the genus Grimpoteuthis go by the common name of dumbo octopuses because they have two “ears!”

A dumbo octopus viewed by NOAA's Okeanos Explorer
A dumbo octopus - photo by MBARI
Dumbo octopus - photo from Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
Dumbo octopus - photo from Monterey Bay Aquarium

Of course, these appendages are not ears but fins. These cartilaginous protrusions stick out from the mantle of the octopus, just behind the eyes. Dumbo octopuses typically remain on the seafloor, waiting for food. When disturbed, they use their legs to push off the bottom and become quick swimmers thanks to their “ears.” The fins are attached to large muscles that can propel the octopus out of dangerous situations in a hurry.

The variety of dumbo octopuses inhabit waters across the globe, though interacting with one is a relative rarity because they typically reside on abyssal plains. This type of ocean geography rests between continental rises and mid-ocean ridges, at depths of 3,000 to 20,000 feet (1,000 to 6,000 meters). Dumbos might be the deepest living type of octopus, as scientists have found them chilling in the hadal zone, the deepest part of the ocean. According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, dumbo octopuses have blue blood thanks to a high level of copper in their circulatory system. Copper is efficient at transporting oxygen in the cold, oxygen-poor depths of the sea.

Dumbo octopuses are cirrates, one of the two main suborders of octopuses. The name comes from cilia-like strands on their suckers but the main, outer trait that distinguishes them from other octopuses is the pair of ear-like fins. The cirrates contain another adorable genus – Opisthoteuthis – which we call flapjack octopuses.

Opisthoteuthis agassizii, not quite Dumbo-sized but still a cirrate - NOAA

Perhaps overplaying the connection to the Disney character, these octopuses seem rather graceful in water, almost as if they can fly through liquid.

For the second time in three months, we can dive into the etymological nerdiness of animal pluralization. What is the proper plural form of multiple cephalopods? As we discovered with nature’s (perhaps) oddest creature – the platypus – several forms exist. One might encounter octopuses, octopi, or octopodes. Researching the origin of “platypus” taught us that platypi is technically incorrect because “platypus” is not a Latin word. Confusion arises because it came from a Greek word that we later Latinized. The “-pi” ending follows some Latin words that end in “-us.” However, since platypus is Greek, the prescriptive plural form would be “platypodes.” Some unimaginative, stuffy people feel this word is too pedantic for popular usage, so “platypuses” became the go-to form. The same goes for “octopus,” which rose from the Greek oktōpous, combing oktō (eight) and pous (foot). Following Greek rules, we would dub multiple individuals as “octopodes.” Alas, the most common English plural form is now “octopuses.”

The phrase “dumbo octopodes” rolls off the tongue more elegantly than “dumbo octopuses,” right?

No matter the pluralization, these cephalopods don’t need a cartoon mouse to teach us they’re glorious creatures of the deep. We still might need Bluey’s dad to teach us why big ears were supposed to equate with dumbness, though.

Further Reading and Exploration

Dumbo – Official Website

Dumbo Octopus: The Whimsical Survivor of the Deep – Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

The original live-action Dumbo! – Monterey Bay Aquarium

Dumbo Octopus – Oceana

First in situ observation of Cephalopoda at hadal depths – Marine Biology

World’s deepest octopus captured on camera – BBC

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