Louise Allcock Professor of Zoology, the National University of Ireland, Galway

Louise on stern of boat

Dr. Octopus

Louise Allcock acquired the name Dr. Octopus because she studies octopuses. Louise is also known as, Deep Sea Diva. (She loves the name ‘diva’ as it implies someone who owns their passion). As the two nicknames indicate, Louise wears two hats: cephalopod evolution and ecology, and the deep sea.

Louise grew up in the Buckinghamshire countryside in south east England. As she says, “There are few places in England where you are more than 60 miles from the sea, but I managed to be born in one of them!” She knew she wanted a scientific career but had a limited awareness of her options. She had a friend who was doing a degree in Marine Biology and thought she would try that. She was hooked. It was as an undergraduate at the University of Liverpool, that piqued  interest in octopuses and resulted in a PhD on them.

pelagic octopus Stauroteuthis syrtensis
Pelagic octopus Stauroteuthis syrtensis. Taken by University of Galway, copyright Marine Institute.

Working with the British Antarctic survey, Louise intended to do population genetics of octopuses. In the Antarctic she discovered that there were many more species of octopus than previously thought in the Southern Ocean and the deep sea. For her PhD, Louise researched the similarities and differences between deep sea and shallow octopuses in the Southern Ocean.

Evolution of Cephalopods

Louise and her students use DNA sequencing to determine the relationships among groups and to learn how cephalopods evolved and diverged into the species that exist today. Researchers in Louise's group have been sequencing genes of cuttlefish to create a family tree.

The cephalopod groups that are around today evolved quite quickly. Louise is interested in what drove cephalopod evolution. Was it plate tectonics or past climate exchange? Understanding the past helps scientists understand the possible impacts of our current and future climate change.

Deep Sea

While working on deep sea octopuses, Louise got interested in the other creatures that she saw in the deep sea. She has conducted research in the depths of the Indian Ocean. She is working with governments to help develop their capacity to generate data about the deep sea. Owning this data will help the government of the Maldives, for example, to think about Marine Protected Areas and other forms of protection of important habitats.

Louise works with Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV’s) and baited cameras to collect deep sea data. She was lucky to have one on the Indian Ocean expedition. In terms of collecting science data, Louise thinks ROVs are better. “There are more of them, they’re affordable, they work for longer without surfacing, and they can work in tough weather conditions.”

We Have So Much to Learn and Protect

It’s difficult and expensive to get into the deep, so scientists have only explored only a tiny fraction of it. Lots of species, like deep sea corals and sponges, are fragile. These vulnerable marine ecosystems need to be protected. In order to protect them, governments need to know where they are so we don’t fish or damage them. Based on data, Louise is creating models to predict where these habitats are. She collaborates with researchers to inform deep sea conservation in Ireland. The goal is to protect 30% of Ireland’s marine environment by 2030.

The Culprits: Ocean Warming & Acidification

Louise says that both warming ocean temperatures and acidification will likely impact cephalopods. Temperature will affect everything. Distribution of species will change. If a species dwells in the Antarctic, there may be nowhere for them to go to survive. And food for some species may not be available in a warming ocean. Species rely on upwelling for larval development and scientists aren’t sure how upwelling will change in specific areas of the ocean.

Cuttlefish have cuttle bone that is composed of calcium carbonate. This calcium is harder to make in an acidic ocean. Thus far, there are no major impacts on cephalopods. That means we still have time to act. Louise advises us to pressure our governments to learn and protect marine life that may be threatened. We need policy-makers who will act, NOW.

She urges students to pressure governments and VOTE.

Louise believes the science she conducts is so much cooler than what you get in a classroom. “It’s about investigating questions, not learning facts. Go do science in university”, she advises. When you become a scientist, when you dive into anything deeply, it just keeps getting more fascinating.”

If you want to read more about cephalopods: Octopus, Squid, and Cuttlefish: A Visual, Scientific Guide to the Oceans’ Most Advanced Invertebrates is a book for the general audience that Louise co-authored.  Louise adds “the book doesn’t dumb down the science.”

Look at this video about Louise’s research.

Orange Coral

Black coral genus Leiopathes in Irish deep-sea waters.  Black corals are very long lived and vulnerable to fishing impacts.  Louise has a PhD student modelling the distribution of black corals in Irish waters so that we can better understand where they need protection. Taken by University of Galway, copyright Marine Institute.