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.
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.
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?
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