I, For One, Welcome Our Cephalopod Overlords

Octopus at the Mote Aquarium, Sarasota

Octopus at the Mote Aquarium, Sarasota

Today we discuss a species that, while not in official residence at the Abbey, would be if it were feasible. Not because we don’t have a saltwater tank, because we could certainly set one up, but because it would only escape and wreak havoc. And knowing me, I would facilitate these escapes just to see what kind of havoc would be wreaked. What kind of terrible genius could do this? An octopus, of course.

I was inspired to write about these wonderful invertebrates for whom a backbone would just cramp their style because of a recent article discussing one more of their badass traits. It’s not enough that they have crazy pigmentation cells that allow them to camouflage with ninja-esque ease into any background, avoiding predators or emerging from out of nowhere as their prey’s worst nightmare. Nor is it enough that they use their equally dexterous minds and arms to solve puzzles, find food, use tools, escape through tiny holes, throw out garbage, escape from tanks to wreak havoc, escape from nets to wreak havoc, attack sharks, make underwater films, or try to murder SCUBA divers who have intruded on their world. No, these creatures, along with their cephalopod cousins cuttlefish and squid, apparently use their entire bodies to sense light — i.e., to see. This awesome trait seems to be part of how they are able to be such great camouflage artists and match their bodies to any ridiculous background you can throw at them. They are basically brains covered by an eye, with sharp beaks and eight arms that not only can do amazing things but can regenerate if they are severed or damaged. And they evolved hundreds of millions of years before we noisy, destructive, hairless thumb monkeys did. Who do you think got the short end of Darwin’s stick? Certainly not Lord Cthulhu.

I have had only a few, brief interactions with octopuses. Each left me impressed, but also a little sad since one can just feel their intelligence, and there’s no way life in an aquarium can be that interesting given what they can get up to in the wild. The first interaction was with the octopus in the Mote Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida. She has a corner tank to herself, from which she can watch people moving between the aquarium’s two main rooms. It was hard to get a read on her — in my experience, octopuses like to keep things close to the vest — but she regarded me regally, partially de-camouflaged to check me out, and then disappeared again into her vantage point. My other interactions have been with two different Pacific Octopuses in the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Connecticut. One of these, a “special needs” octopus in that she was missing portions of two of her arms, had come to the aquarium from Seattle. Whatever had happened in this animal’s life had left her very, very frustrated. I believe I saw her for the first time when she had only just arrived and the staff had not quite finished arranging her tank. There were just a few pieces of kelp and a ceramic jar for her to use for cover, but otherwise not much stimulation. She was balled up in an upper corner of the tank, slowly rolling and unrolling one arm. When she sensed me she moved from the corner and came to look at me. I have only seen expressions of helpless fury in a few animals, and this was one of the times. Boredom, loneliness, rage — these emotions were overpowering. I was struck by how completely understimulated she must have been, as well as whatever other stress was carried over from her long trip. On subsequent visits there were more items in the tank for her to work with, like a jar to unscrew for treats, more places to hide, and some “company” in the form of starfish (who don’t strike me as being good company for an octopus). The boredom and rage were still evident, however, and even though she came over to look at me I got the sense she was becoming more withdrawn. After being in residence for over a year (octopuses are not very long lived) she was replaced by another Pacific Octopus. Perhaps having learned from their experience with the first one, the staff seemed to have equipped the second one with more things to do, as well as more starfish for company. When I met Octopus #2, it was relaxing in that same upper corner of the tank and seemed a little more comfortable, though still gave the impression of being bored. When it noticed me it lackadaisically reached for a kelp leaf and began to play peek-a-boo with it, moving it between me and itself and watching me. While it did that, another arm would occasionally reach down and poke a starfish that was stuck to the side of the tank. To me, the poking seemed like a deliberate annoyance — if I were an octopus stuck with a bunch of starfish, I would probably be tempted to mess with them, too, because why not? It will be interesting to see how Octopus #2 is doing next time we visit.

Meanwhile, for an excellent discussion of octopus intelligence by a wonderful writer on animal behavior, check out this article by Sy Montgomery. And know that when our turn as alleged top species is over, the octopus will be laughing at us from the shadows of the sea…

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