Can I Really Get My Arms Around This Animal?

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It’s time we talked about octopuses. I hear you saying: “Annie-the-English-major: Don’t you mean octopi?” That’s the first misconception we must clarify right away. All those years we’ve been talking about octopi? We’ve been wrong. Well, not everyone agrees, but here’s what the Oxford Dictionaries say:

“The standard plural in English of octopus is octopuses. However, the word octopus comes from the Greek, and the Greek plural octopodes is still occasionally used. The plural form octopi, formed according to rules for some Latin plurals, is incorrect.”

So I’m taking the strictly classical position; I dare not intermingle Greek and Latin grammar.

It’s possible, of course, that your more pressing question is: Why is it time we talked about octopuses? I shall explain.

A few months ago, I was at a dinner party where the host had made paella. I’d never eaten scungilli or squid—they simply didn’t appeal to me. But there I was, faced with a plate in which the tell-tale rings were abundant. I generously transferred them from my plate to that of a friend who was eager for this gift.

Shortly before that dinner party, I’d heard a discussion about octopuses—how incredibly intelligent and social they are—how those in aquariums form bonds with their trainers and wend their way to that side of the tank. Not squid, of course, but a relative thereof.

In fact, when a naturalist named Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus, was interviewed on WBGH Boston radio, her interviewer began his intro by saying:

“If you’re someone who likes to eat octopus, those days are over.”

He said he’d refrained from eating octopuses just since reading her book. You can disagree with that sentiment, and I’m sure many of you will, but it’s been attributed to enough people to make me think there’s a bit of mystery here.

Why all the fuss? Because these strange creatures—shape-shifting, color-changing invertebrates with 3 hearts and brains wrapped around their esophaguses—are highly intelligent beings that seem to form attractions with humans. Montgomery says her love for Athena, the octopus, began when Athena first sidled up to her in an aquarium. The intro to the interview with her described their first meeting:

“Athena, an octopus toddler living in the New England Aquarium, locked eyes with the New Hampshire native, and without hesitation, Sy plunged her hand into an ice cold marine tank to allow the curious cephalopod to taste her skin. Octopuses, it turns out, taste with their suckers, and as Athena carefully explored Montgomery’s outstretched arms with her own, the writer felt they were both seeking, and connecting, alien skin to alien skin. Or, as we discovered, brain to brain.”

Keep that last thought in mind, as we’ll return to it.

Let’s explore the intelligence aspect a little further. A 2015 article in Nature, reporting on the sequencing of the octopus genome, began:

“With its eight prehensile arms lined with suckers, camera-like eyes, elaborate repertoire of camouflage tricks and spooky intelligence, the octopus is like no other creature on Earth. Added to those distinctions is an unusually large genome…that helps to explain how a mere mollusk evolved into an otherworldly being.” 

We’re talking about real brain power here. The Nature article quotes Benny Hochner, an Israeli neurobiologist who’s been studying octopuses for decades. “It’s important for us to know the genome, because it gives us insights into how the sophisticated cognitive skills of octopuses evolved.” 

What have they learned? That the genome of an octopus is nearly as large as ours, and actually has more protein-coding genes than we do: about 33,000, while we have fewer than 25,000. And the gene groups include one (called the protocadherins) involved in the development of neurons and their interactions. 

Octopuses also have specific, highly expressed genes in certain tissues. The genes in their suckers, for example, appear comparable to those related to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and apparently give those suckers their exquisite ability to taste.images-28

This intelligence is associated with the octopuses’ roughly 500,000 neurons, of which as many as two-thirds are located in their arms, particularly their upper arms. Talk about multi-tasking!  They can be doing one thing while an arm or two move around exploring their environment. And their neurons seem to act without being attached to anything via long-range fibers, Nature observes—such as the spinal cord we vertebrates have. And…

“The genome contains systems that can allow tissues to rapidly modify proteins to change their function. Electrophysiologists had predicted that this could explain how octopuses adapt their neural-network properties to enable such extraordinary learning and memory capabilities.”

How does this intelligence manifest itself? For one thing, octopuses are veritable Houdinis. Aquarium personnel know you never turn your back on an octopus in a pail because the next time you look, he’ll be quietly walking down the hall.

They are strong enough to push open the lids of their tanks, and one reportedly took off and made his way from the aquarium back to the sea he’d once called home.  And because of their shape-shifting and lack of bones, a 100-pound octopus can squeeze through a hole the size of an orange, says Montgomery.

They seem to welcome what can only be called mental stimulation. Montgomery speaks of an “Enrichment Manual” that advises aquarium personnel to give them Mr. Potato Heads, Legos, and the like. One inventor created a series of cubes made of plexiglass containing a crab. Each of the three cubes had a different lock; the third had 2 different locks. The octopus opened them all.

They appear to be playful. Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith became fascinated by them when he was scuba diving off the coast of Australia. He has written a book  describing how octopuses have led him to explore the nature of consciousness. 

In an interview, Tentacled Alien From Under the Sea, he discusses octopuses in captivity turning out the lights in the lab by squirting water on the fixtures. And they demonstrably behave differently to people who treat them kindly than to those who aren’t as nice, perhaps even forming likes and dislikes for reasons that aren’t evident. 

The interviewer asked Godfrey-Smith whether when an octopus grabs your hand and sucks on you, is it tasting you? Godfrey-Smith responded:

“That’s what they are doing…so octopuses will reach out an arm and their suckers  will attach and touch you. All of those suckers contain a variety of sensory organs but in particular they can taste everything they touch.”

“If you’re in an aquarium and you’ve used particular soaps or deodorants, those are extremely strong stimuli when an octopus touches you and will make a big difference as to how you come across to them. This is one of several ways in which their sensory world is just completely extraordinary.”

Montgomery reported about one octopus, Truman, that sprayed a young aquarium worker in the face with water whenever she came into view—the only one who got that treatment. And when she’d been gone for months, and then returned, Truman greeted her with the same tactic—clearly remembering who she was. images-30

Montgomery has reportedly expressed her “surprise that octopuses have personalities and even consciousness—and some of the same cognitive and emotional capacities that we do and maybe a whole bunch we don’t.”

An octopus in a New Zealand aquarium takes pictures of the people who come to see him. In only three tries, he figured out how to work the camera, and he springs to action when he sees people positioned against a white backdrop, placing one of his arms into a tube and  snapping the photo.

The octopus learns in the wild that it’s kill or be killed, and it has a panoply of options when faced with a potentially dangerous situation.  Montgomery mentioned its weaponry:  Eat the predator using its sharp beak? Envelop it?  Turn colors, either to confuse it or blend into the environment?  Pour its “baggy boneless body down a little crack?” Shoot out ink to give it time to escape? 

The octopus meets up with diverse animals with different brains, she says, and outwits them all.

For additional videos, see “Octopuses keep surprising us—here are eight examples how.”

Now we come to the somewhat hypothethetical and, to me, most fascinating part. Because they are so clever, so resourceful, and so very odd, more than one scientist studying octopuses has said some variation of the following:

“This is probably the closest we’ll come to meeting an intelligent alien.“

How did it all happen? No one knows for sure, of course, but one “big idea” (in Godfrey-Smith’s phrase) is that there was a common ancestor between the octopus and vertebrates about 600 million years ago, and two individual evolutionary experiments occurred involving large neuron systems and complex brains.

If octopuses are so intelligent and always eager to escape, the question then arises: is it fair for us to keep them in aquariums? Montgomery thinks it’s fair, because most octopus species in the wild spend the preponderance of their time in tight dens, but they need things to keep them interested and to stimulate their brains. She wouldn’t, she says, think such environment suitable to dolphins, for example.

In addition, octopuses are the subject of study for soft robotics, among other things.

But to our point today, octopuses and individual humans have definitely formed bonds. Montgomery says of her experience:

“I wanted to see if I could reach across the evolutionary chasm to touch an invertebrate from 1/2 billion years ago. It changed my way of thinking about thinking. Their brains evolved from an utterly different route. They’re each individuals.”

Did Athena trust you?, she was asked of her first encounter with an octopus. “There’s no telling–with people either. Maybe she could taste that I wasn’t afraid of her. Maybe she could taste emotions—through neurotransmitters or hormones.”

“Either way, we liked each other very much.”

What do you think? If you’re an octopus connoisseur, are you rethinking your position? How eager would you be to be “hugged and kissed” by an octopus? Do you agree with Montgomery that they’re OK in captivity–or not? Do you find octopuses as fascinating as I do?

As always, I welcome your thoughts, opinions, and stories in the comment box below—as well as your feedback in the form of stars (from the one on the left for “awful” to the one on the right for “excellent”) and the “likes” from WordPress folks.  Thanks so much.

Annie

30 thoughts on “Can I Really Get My Arms Around This Animal?

  1. Thanks, Len. I’m glad to hear that.
    I’d like to think I’d plunge my arm into icy water to meet an Athena; it sounds like such an extraordinary experience. Not sure I’d do it, though.

    Annie

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  2. I have always thought that the safest plural of “octopus” is “more than one octopus.”. 😀

    And being one whose goal is to avoid seafood to the maximum extent possible, I can safely promise that I will never harm an octopus.

    And this was a very interesting read, so thanks for this!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Annie,
    You’re so well armed with information about these amazing animals that we’d be suckers not to appreciate their qualities and virtues.
    I haven’t eaten one before but definitely won’t now.
    Don

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You jest about my scholarly treatise on these remarkable kindred spirits?

      In truth, your punning made me shape-shift with the giggles and turn slightly red–totally appropriate reactions, given the subject matter, don’t you think?

      Annie

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  4. This was so interesting and an eye-opener for me! I never knew how intelligent and sociable an octopus could be. I knew there was a good reason I never wanted to try eating octopus or squid. And now I understand why an octopus once bit Ted Cruz, according to him. Clever octopus!

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    1. An eye-opener in more ways than one! I failed to mention their one dominant eye (it can be either the right or left) that swivels in its socket. Sy Montgomery recalls Athena emerging from the water and fixating on her with her dominant eye. Quite an image, isn’t it?

      Your Ted Cruz comment made me laugh. Interestingly, though my research was by no means extensive, I didn’t come across a single mention of an octopus biting a human–kisses and hugs, for sure, but no bites. So one has to wonder what it was about Ted Cruz (sometimes called the least popular senator) that provoked the attack. We can probably rule out politics, but there are plenty of other possibilities.

      Clever octopus, indeed!

      Annie

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  5.     A question of intelligence. That’s an interesting challenge. There was an argument about Gorilla intelligence for a long time until they taught a Gorilla American Sign Language and it could talk to the scientists. But for quite some time some stubborn scientists refused to believe that the Gorillas were actually using language and not just mimicking. But one Gorilla was taught the word for “bird” by showing it pictures of chickens and giving it the sign for “bird.” One day they took it to a pond in a park where it saw ducks. It pointed to a duck and called it a “water bird” without coaching. (I think the gorilla’s name was KOKO.)
        So, it would interesting to develop a language that octopuses and humans could share. I wonder what word in what form you could develop that would mean “the taste of love”. So in the encounters where it is said that “they like each other” the actions showing that could be turned into gestures that would be an element of language. Whatever those intuitions were they could be encapsulated into a ritualized set of gestures or actions that when repeated would mean “I like you” etc.
        I think also they used a language keyboard with symbols for some chimps. Perhaps they could have an octopus taste keyboard. One key could have the “taste of Sy Montgomery” and another the “taste of Athena”. They’d have to figure out what kind of texture could be saturated with an appropriate chemical marker for taste and smell. Those keys would be personal pronouns. And keys for things that are liked etc.
        [A side note: Latin and Greek roots mixed in English with Anglo-Saxon can be a real root of confusion. The Latin root “homo” means man and the Greek root “homo or homos” means “like”. I wonder if fungi know about Homo sapiens and homologous chromosomes?]

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    1. I think Sy Montgomery felt that she and Athena had found the way to communicate their affection. And Peter Godfrey-Smith was very clear that he felt octopuses’ actions are hugs and kisses. No translation needed there.

      I like the taste keyboard idea a lot. It would be interesting to find out if research in that direction is feasible and even under way.

      As to your comments about gorillas, I’ve followed those stories for quite some time. (I give telling anecdotes about the intelligence of gorillas and chimpanzees in my post, “How Do You Train a Butterfly? The Same Way You Train an Orthopedic Surgeon!”)

      The same is true of birds: it’s mind-boggling what crows can accomplish using tools, and the repertoires songbirds possess, as well as their awareness of one another’s calls. “Alex & Me,” by Irene Pepperberg, is a wonderful book about a scientist and her African Grey parrot–in terms of both the bird’s intelligence and the emotional bond between the author and her long-time buddy.

      Essentially, I try to balance my anthropomorphism with a healthy respect for the fact that humans haven’t cornered the market on either intelligence or emotions. Athena and her cohort simply served to underscore that sentiment in a profound way.

      Annie

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  6. Well, I’ve never eaten octopus and probably won’t now.

    The only octopuses I encountered were on the other side of a glass in an aquarium when I was a kid.

    But they did come over to see me and stare at me for quite a while.

    So I guess I was someone who must have aroused their intellectual curiosity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. From what we know, it’s very likely you aroused their intellectual curiosity. Perhaps you will now endow your guy Kraken with a brand new set of skills and emotions? He’s awaiting all sorts of new adventures.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This was really fun. I had known they were intelligent and sociable but had no idea as to the depths of their abilities. Fascinating. Makes me want to know so much more. Appreciated, as well, your reader’s remarks on creating a means of decoding their communication. How interesting — and, given the example of gorillas and dolphins, it should be possible. We humans tend to tromp through our world with so little regard for the other creatures that occupy it. I”m so glad there are scientists who are pursuing deeper knowledge and thank YOU, Annie, for bringing these things to the fore. Write on! I really enjoy your work.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I just caught up to some of your resources here, too. That fact about the mothers was arresting. Everything for the babes, including one’s life. Goodness.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m so glad you availed yourself of the resources. I’m always just scratching the surface in these posts.

    That story about the mother just living til she could deliver her many young into the world is astonishing, isn’t it?

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  10. Wow Annie this was such an absorbing read and absolutely packed with fascinating information. I didn’t know they were so playful and that they formed attachments so readily. In particular, I shudder to think of the times I have used ‘octopii’ in the past, thinking myself grammatically astute! Consider me thoroughly reeducated!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s masterful prose, but as someone who’s not good with blood and gore, I had a hard time reading it. Glad I stayed with it, though my heart was pounding, because the ending was extraordinary. I’d love to know what you consider lessons learned.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m one of those authors who can’t bear to hear their own work read back to them. I always want to tweak and adjust, and once it is down on paper on published online I no longer have that option!

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