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Copper exposure in vent octopus

Feb 5, 2003
I've been reading Deep-Ocean Journeys, by Cindy Lee Van Dover, which chronicles some of the adventures she had as an Alvin pilot. In the book she mentions that,
"where hydrothermal activity has persisted for long periods, great mounds of metallic ores-iron, copper, and zinc sulfides-have accumulated" (Dover 1996, pg. 56, emphasis my own).
She also states that vent fluid emananting from Black Smokers is laden with
"dissolved iron, copper, zinc, other metals and volatile gases..." (Dover 1996, pg. 108, emphasis my own).
My first thought after reading this was "What about the octopus that live there?" Cephalopods as a whole are supposed to be exceptionally susceptible to copper. I knew that cephs weren't overly abundant around these vents, but I was sure that there was some species that colonized them. After little searching, I found my creature: Vulcanoctopus hydrothermalis.

These creatures have been found in groups up to 12 on vents (Voight 2005). They are among the top predators of vent communities. My question is this, how can a cephalopod that supposedly cannot tolerate copper live in such an environment? The vents described in Voight (2005) were no longer active, and therefore were not contributing any copper on an immediate basis. Were these vents just not active long enough to build up accretions of copper? Have V. hydrothermalis only ever been found on short-lived, extinct vents?

Curiously, Voight (2005) does mention that V. hydrothermalis is clearly adapted to vent communities as it can withstand significant sulphide exposure. Is it possible for different cephs to have differing abilities to handle copper exposure? According in first year chemistry, copper sulphide (CuS or Cu2S) is insoluble, so maybe it comes out of the vent and precipitates out of solution. Of course, there are many other ways copper and sulphur can combine.

For a visual of this incredible animal, see: http://www.exploretheabyss.com/photo/gallery/gallery/popups/vulcanoctopusbody.htm

I apologize if my quoting style is not entirely correct; I just don't want to get sued. It is a simple read, but still a great book. Recommended for rainy day weather (such as today).


Voight, J. R. 2005. Hydrothermal vent octopuses of Vulcanoctopus hydrothermalis, feeding on bathypelagic amphipods of Halice hesmonectes. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the UK, 85, 985-988.


Dec 22, 2004
Great thread. Does anyone know of an empirical study of copper tolerance in cephs? I go way out of my way to keep metals out of my tank but I would still say I don't consider anything said about keeping cephs to be canon. Most inverts are said to be sensitive to it but don't seem to have much trouble in these vent communities.



Staff member
Nov 19, 2002
Is copper present at all black smokers? Are the contents of the vents given by (Dover 1996) universal or do some have more of one kind of mineral than another? Mineral deposits here in the western US usually have more of one mineral than the others, so you get a lead mine, silver mine or copper mine... and some of them are believed to have formed around vents before the deposits were uplifted and exposed.
Feb 5, 2003
She does mention that mines in the US were once sites of deposition around vents.

She has a chapter in the book dedicated strictly to Black Smokers. The way she talks about the contents of the vent fluid make it appear to be a universal truth. However, she says,
"They are acid solutions, depleted in dissolved oxygen and magnesium, and laden with minerals stripped from the rocks deep within the ocean crust" (Dover 1996, pg. 108, emphasis my own).
I suppose that if the underlying crust had a higher copper content, that would be reflected in the vent fluid, and vice versa. Maybe cephs only inhabit vents based on crust with minimal copper. I also had the thought about how other inverts adapted to the copper, though I wasn't sure if other taxa have such a lethal reaction to copper.

Interestingly, she talks about following the black plume vertically until it is no longer traceable. She soon finds herself at 200 m off the seafloor! Imagine a plume bearing copper, and how it would effect pelagic cephs migration and foraging around it. I wonder if cephs can even detect copper, and steer clear of it, or if it's effects are akin to our reaction to carbon monoxide. So many questions...

I would also be interested in a study on copper tolerance. Hadn't thought about it before, so I'll go looking and report if I find anything. The difficulty would be how to measure tolerance without killing a whole bunch of cephs. Could you extrapolate results from exposing a tissue culture to an entire organism? Don't know.


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