Deep-sea finned Octopoda of New Zealand

By Dr. Steve O'Shea

Note: Steve welcomes discussion in's Opisthoteuthidae forum.

Earth and Oceanic Sciences Research Institute
Auckland University of Technology
Private Bag 92 006
Auckland, New Zealand

The most often-cited distinction between a squid and an octopus is in the number of arms and tentacles – squid usually have eight arms and two tentacles, while octopus have only eight arms. It also has been said that squid possess fins, whereas octopus do not, but neither generalisation is entirely true. Some squid have only eight arms in the adult form, and some specimens of octopus are known with more or less than eight arms (although they never have tentacles). Furthermore, many deepwater octopus species possess well-developed fins. In fact, one of the most fundamental differences between octopus and squid is that squid possess circular-saw-like rings or talon-like hooks on the suckers, whereas octopuses do not (their suckers are simple suction cups).

Squid and octopus are amongst the most conspicuous and interesting components of fisheries bycatch. Although little is known of the New Zealand squid fauna, a revision of the local octopus fauna is complete; as a consequence, the number of species known from local waters nearly tripled.

There are two basic types of octopus, those with fins (cirrates) and those without (incirrates). Cirrate octopuses are extremely primitive, generally rare, and usually found on the seafloor at depths in excess of 300 m (world wide, they are known to depths of 7500 m). Incirrate octopuses are more common, and are found from rock pools to depths of 3500 m (these are 'typical' or 'common octopuses').

Forty-two octopus species are now known from New Zealand waters; 10 cirrate species and 32 incirrate species. Despite this we probably have a limited understanding of the real diversity of deep-sea octopus species, largely because of the limited specimens known from such difficult-to-access environments. For example, only 10 local octopus specimens are known from depths below 1400 m, despite the fact that between coordinates 24.5–57.5'S, 157.0'E–167'W more than 50% of the seafloor lies between 3000 and 8000 metres.

The location of all known deep-sea octopus captures around New Zealand is shown in Figure 1. Species collected in areas not already sampled, or in areas marked by arrows (a huge proportion of the seafloor), are quite likely to be new to science. Not one deep-sea octopus has been collected from the Kermadec Island region since 1873; none was known from either the Louisville or Norfolk Ridges, and the Lord Howe Rise until the NORFANZ expedition this month; very few are known from the west coast of the North and South Islands, and few are known from local seamount environments.

None of the following species is considered common (three are known from single specimens only). Although each has a formal scientific name, each has been given a common name also.

Order: Octopoda
Suborder: Cirrata (finned) octopuses
Opisthoteuthis spp. (umbrella octopuses)

Three new Opisthoteuthis species are recognised from New Zealand waters. Generally species in this genus are squat-bodied, low in profile, lump-like and quite gelatinous. Their colour usually ranges from pink to dark red, with rows of pale-coloured blotches (areolar spots) running over their bodies.

Opisthoteuthis mero O'Shea, 1999 (Mero's umbrella octopus; Figure 2)

This is our most common cirrate species, found between depths of 300 and 1000 m. Currently it is known only from soft substrates, and was particularly common as a bycatch species from the scampi fishery in the Bay of Plenty and around the Auckland Islands (although it does not appear as common today as it was a decade or so ago). This species has also proved abundant on the Wairarapa coast and Chatham Rise. The animal attains a moderate size (to several kilograms), and is quite inedible (although it is known from sperm whale gut contents). This species is presently considered endangered, and in places locally extinct.

Opisthoteuthis chathamensis O'Shea, 1999 (roughy umbrella octopus; Figure 3)

A rare, deep-water species known from depths exceeding 1000 m off the Wairarapa coast and Chatham Rise. It occasionally occurs in bycatch from the orange roughy fishery. The animal is small bodied (fits into palm of hand), and the suckers along the arms are comparatively few in number (less than 60), and quite enlarged (and bulbous) in the oral region of the male's mouth and also half-way along the arms. The colour ranges from dark red to maroon, with a few pale white blotches. This species is presently considered endangered.

Opisthoteuthis robsoni O'Shea, 1999 (deep-water umbrella octopus; Figure 4)

This very rare, large-bodied, deep-water species is known only from several male specimens taken on the Chatham Rise at depths below 1300 m. In general morphology it is similar to the two previous Opisthoteuthis species, but differs notably from them in anatomy.

Cirroctopus hochbergi O'Shea, 1999 (4-blotched umbrella octopus; Figure 5)

This cirrate is recognised from the Wairarapa coast, East Cape, and from several specimens recently collected off seamounts in the Bay of Plenty. Otherwise, the distribution of this genus is restricted to Antarctic waters, where two other species are known. It is known only from seamount and cold seep environments off New Zealand, while the closely related Antarctic species are known from soft sediments. It is distinguished from other cirrates by having two large, white blotches beneath the eyes, and a second pair of smaller white blotches at the base of the fins, a muscular body, and a dark-purple colouration. This species probably has a more extensive distribution than now recognised; any specimens of this easily identifiable species would be most valuable to science. Historically, this species was relatively common off East Cape and Napier, although no specimen is known from either location for the past 2 years. It is presently considered endangered, and locally extinct.

Grimpoteuthis abyssicola O'Shea, 1999 (red jellyhead; Figure 6)

Typical of the genus is the marked contrast in colour of the mantle and head from the arms and web; in the New Zealand species the animal's head and body are almost transparent, while the arms and web are delightfully pigmented in a markedly contrasting rich maroon (other species may be red, purple, or nearly black). Given the abyssal depths this genus frequents it is unlikely that species are endangered (trawling at this depth is rare in New Zealand waters). However, given their highly gelatinous and delicate tissues, species in this genus are extremely susceptible to damage in trawl nets.

Enigmatiteuthis innominata O'Shea, 1999 (small jellyhead; Figure 7)

This very rare species is represented in museum collections by two immature specimens, collected together off the Chatham Rise at c. 2000 m. The animal when mature is probably small (fitting in two outstretched palms), dark red to maroon over all body surfaces, and elongated along its axis to give it a bell-shaped, longer-than-wide appearance; the fins are quite large.

Cirroteuthis sp. (big-finned jellyhead; Figure 8)

This extremely rare species is known only from a single specimen captured with Enigmatiteuthis from c. 2000 m on the Chatham Rise. Three specimens of a similar animal, possibly the same species, are known from Australian waters (Museum of Victoria collections). This is the first Southern Hemisphere record of this very rare genus (previously known only from the North Atlantic and North Pacific). The New Zealand and Australian specimens probably belong to a separate species, although additional specimens are required to fully resolve all the problems currently faced in identifying it. The animal is probably small at maturity, and highly gelatinous, and with its large fins, small eyes, and extremely long filament-like structures originating from the between the suckers along the arms, is quite distinctive.

Luteuthis dentatus O'Shea, 1999 (Lu's jellyhead; Figure 9)

This extremely rare animal is known only from 4 specimens, three from New Zealand waters and one from off Macquarie Island (Australian waters). It is one of the most interesting cirrate species known for it possesses a radula (teeth-like structures present within the mouth of the animal, between the beaks – used for rasping prey into small hunks); it is one of only three species known that possesses such a structure. This species is extensively gelatinous, the fins are very large, their margins evidently tinged with red to pink, and the arms are exceedingly long. A related species, Luteuthis shuishi O'Shea & Lu, 2002, has recently been described from the South China Sea.

Cirrothauma sp. cf. Cirroteuthis magna Hoyle (big-eye jellyhead; Figure 10)

This species, which has an extremely long and confusing name, is known from New Zealand waters by a single, large, damaged specimen. This animal probably grows to over 1 m in total length; it is extremely gelatinous, delicate, and probably transparent when fresh. It is not a particularly deep-dwelling species, and several specimens known from Australian waters, like the New Zealand specimen, were collected at about 1000 m depth. All specimens are damaged; hopefully with the capture of better specimens we will be able to describe the species more fully, and perhaps allow us to shorten its name.

Scientists world-wide now recognise New Zealand marine cephalopod collections to be amongst the most comprehensive of their kind for any EEZ. Our fauna contains many interesting, bizarre, and previously unknown species. It is most apparent, however, that almost daily species new to New Zealand or to science in general are being discovered, particularly amongst bycatch retained from commercial and research deep-sea trawling operations. Tragically, it is also apparent that some of these deep-water finned-octopus species appear on the verge of extinction.

Although the New Zealand octopus fauna is relatively well known, our squid fauna is not, although it currently is being revised. We'll try and update the fauna on a family-by-family basis in the months to come.


Figure 1. Recognised distribution of deep-sea octopods represented in New Zealand museum collections. Arrows depict environments from which new species or new distribution records are most likely. For 'new genus 1' read Enigmatiteuthis; for 'new genus 2' read Luteuthis.


Figures 2–4, Opisthoteuthis spp., oral and aboral views: 2, O. mero; 3, O. chathamensis; 4, O. robsoni.


Figures 5–8, dorsal and ventral views: 5, Cirroctopus hochbergi; 6, Grimpoteuthis abyssicola; 7,
Enigmatiteuthis innominata; 8, Cirroteuthissp.


Figures 9, 10, dorsal views: 9, Luteuthis dentatus; 10, ?Cirrothauma sp. cf. Cirroteuthis magna Hoyle.
Original publish date
Mar 15, 2003
About the Author
Steve O'Shea
Steve is an expert in the systematics and biogeography of cephalopods, and joined the staff in June 2002. He can be seen on the Discovery Channel documentary, Chasing Giants: On the Trail of the Giant Squid. For more information, see his Autobiography and Select Bibliography (2003). Dr. O'Shea lives in New Zealand.


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