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Baby octopuses grow hundreds of temporary organs, then lose them without a trace

Throughout your life, your internal organs develop and change, but they rarely disappear entirely. Baby octopuses, on the other hand, have a more difficult time of it.

Hundreds of temporary microscopic structures known as Kölliker's organs sprout from embryonic octopuses before they are born, and these organs are essential to the survival of the species (KO). In the octopus's body, these microscopic organs can be found on every surface, occasionally concealing themselves within small pockets in the skin and occasionally extending (or "everting") like tiny folded-up umbrellas. Once an organ has been everted, it has the ability to bloom open, revealing a burst of bristly fibers.

Researchers at the Spanish National Research Council's (CSIC) Institute de Ciències del Mar told Live Science that KO has the appearance of a broom when it's partially everted. "When partially everted, KO resembles a broom," Villanueva said in an email. "When fully blossomed, KO resembles a dandelion flower in appearance."

Despite the fact that biologists have been aware of these microscopic flowering organs for decades, no one has been able to explain why embryonic octopuses completely lose their bristly bits and bobs before they reach adulthood. Villanueva and colleagues' recently published research sheds new light on the mysterious disappearance of organs, which has long been a mystery.

Using a technique called light-sheet microscopy, the researchers examined embryonic octopuses from 17 different species. Essentially, this involves immersing a sample in fluid to make it transparent, and then shining light through it to highlight difficult-to-see structures.

All but two of the 17 species investigated had KO; the two that did not were both holobenthic octopuses, which are born large and spend their entire lives in the deep ocean. Almost all of the 15 species affected by KO are planktonic, which means that hatchlings are born very small and swim higher in the water column as their bodies grow and morph into adulthood, whereas most other species are not.

The research team discovered that KO are evenly distributed throughout the bodies of young octopuses and are typically the same size regardless of the size of the embryo they are found in. Also discovered by the researchers was that when an octopus's KO are fully spread open, the animal's surface area increases by a whopping two-thirds.

According to the researchers, these findings may shed light on the enigmatic purpose of KO, which is currently unknown.

A statement from Villanueva, the study's lead author, said, "[We] believe that the organs could be used to increase the surface-to-volume ratio of young octopuses."

Young octopuses may be better able to propel themselves through or resist ocean currents if they have the ability to significantly increase or decrease their surface area. This is a particularly advantageous trait for planktonic hatchlings, which spend their early lives moving at the whims of ocean currents. Hatchlings would save more energy if their KO was deployed or retracted, according to the researchers' hypothesis.

There is, however, another, more insidious possibility to consider. It was discovered in 1974 by a team of researchers who published their findings in the journal Aquaculture. They discovered that KO, like crystals, has the ability to refract light in multiple directions. According to the researchers, this refractive ability may aid in blurring the hatchling's outline in the water, making them more difficult to catch for predators, thereby increasing their chances of survival. This may explain why many octopuses that live near the deep, dark ocean floor do not develop KO at all; in the darkness of the deep ocean floor, there is no need for camouflage to protect them from predators.

However, even after thoroughly studying the structure of KO in greater detail than any previous study, the researchers say it is still unclear what the true function of the unusual, disappearing organs is. Biologists may be able to better understand the phenomenon if they are able to observe hatchling octopuses in the wild in the future. For the time being, the researchers are content to share the strange beauty of small cephalopods that have previously gone unnoticed.

Molecular imaging specialist Montserrat Coll-Llado, who worked on the study with Montserrat Coll-Llado at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Barcelona, said in a statement to Live Science: "It's been fascinating to peer inside the tissues and organs of hatchlings and juvenile octopuses at a cellular level." "It's similar to exploring new neighborhoods in a city you've never been to before — but better."

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