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Blue Blood’ Helps Antarctic Octopus Survive in Brutally Cold Waters

Octopuses in Antarctica survive subzero temperatures because of blue pigment in their blood, a new study finds.

The ice-cold temperatures in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica range between 28.8 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 1.8 degrees Celsius) to 35.6 degrees F (2 degrees C). In such frigid conditions, animals have a harder time transporting oxygen throughout their bodies and therefore delivering it to tissues.

To cope, Antarctic octopuses use a copper-based protein called haemocyanin. It makes their blood run blue and is much more efficient at keeping their bodies properly oxygenated at freezing temperatures. [8 Crazy Facts About Octopuses]

"This is the first study providing clear evidence that the octopods' blue blood pigment, haemocyanin, undergoes functional changes to improve the supply of oxygen to tissue at subzero temperature," lead study author Michael Oellermann, a biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Germany, said in a statement.

To find out what keeps an octopus’s body oxygenated, Oellermann and his colleagues compared haemocyanin levels in an Antarctic octopus species (Paraledone charcoti) and in two species that live in warmer climates (Octopus pallidus in southeast Australia and Eledone moschatain the Mediterranean).

The Antarctic octopus had the highest concentration of haemocyanin in its blood compared with other species. At 50 degrees F (10 degrees C), the Antarctic octopus could release far more oxygen (76.7 percent), than the two warm-water octopuses (at 33 percent for the Octopus pallidusand 29.8 percent for the Eledone moschata).

Snorkeler Has Close Encounter With Octopus 0:27

Although the Antarctic octopus is far more adept at producing oxygen in cold waters than its warm-water counterparts, these animals actually thrive when the water is a balmy 50 degrees F (10 degrees C), rather than at 32 degrees F (0 degrees C), which is typical in the Southern Ocean’s lowest latitudes.

The study was published March 11 in the journal Frontiers in Zoology.

— Shannon Hall, Live Science

This is a condensed version of a report from Live. Science. Read the full report. Follow Shannon Hall on Twitter @ShannonWHall. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+.