The crinkly form of a small, dried octopus lay on a desk in Washington, D.C., 170 years ago. The curious cephalopod, which had been collected more than 7,000 kilometers away in Brazil, was one of thousands of creatures obtained by researchers on the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition, which had taken explorers, navy men, merchants, and scientists on an epic voyage around the Pacific Ocean. The project took years, and some preserved specimens—including a few small-headed red octopuses with white, leopard-like spots that had been picked up from a fish market in Rio de Janeiro, and from local fishers—eventually wound up with experts, such as American naturalist Augustus Addison Gould, for scientific analysis.
A seasoned taxonomist who had cataloged countless mollusk species, from sea snails to bivalves, Gould was convinced that what he had in front of him was a species new to science. He called it Callistoctopus furvus.
But Gould’s work soon faded from memory, and the existence of C. furvus became the subject of dispute. Specimens that Gould had used for his identification went missing, and researchers began to question whether his description of the animal was enough to verify that it truly was a distinct species. Even as recently as a few years ago, biologists could come to little agreement as to whether the octopuses in the Americas that roughly match his report should be classed as C. furvus, or whether they’re really just C. macropus, a similar species found thousands of kilometers away in the Mediterranean Sea.