Sea Monsters: Octopus

“Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen.  It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange.”
– Sy Montgomery

I’ve already written a love letter to the octopus but not everyone is such a fan.  Take Victor Hugo for example, on the subject of an octopus attack:

“The spectre lies upon you; the tiger can only devour you; the devil-fish, horrible, sucks your life-blood away.  The muscles swell, the fibres of the body are contorted, the skin cracks under the loathsome oppression, the blood spurts out and mingles horribly with the lymph of the monster, which clings to the victim with innumerable hideous mouths.”

Perhaps the way octopuses attack could be a justification for fear or dislike of this fantastic creature…  All octopuses are venomous and when they release their venom into their prey it stops involuntary muscles from working so the victim can’t breathe.  Clearly not a nice way to die.  But they don’t tend to attack humans.  Perhaps it’s more appropriate to be afraid of getting caught in their suckers.  These create suction, allowing the octopus to attach itself to things and can also fold to create a pincer grip.  Each octopus has many many suckers of different sizes and each one is incredibly strong.  Its been estimated that a 2.5 inch diameter sucker could lift 35 pounds of weight.  And remember that the octopus has 8 legs so those suckers can get everywhere.

Maybe it is the 8 appendages that we are afraid of.  We can’t keep track of 8 independently operating legs with our two eyes… And between the 8 legs and the powerful suckers they can take down sharks…

Eww… It’s slimy… A lot of sea creatures make use of slime in one way or another, it can help reduce drag when moving in the water, it can be used to help catch and eat prey as well as escape predators and it can be used to keep skin healthy.  The octopus is one of these ‘slimy’ creatures.  It helps them squeeze into small spaces, it keeps them moist when they leave the water and protects their delicate skin as they scrape against rocks and sand.  But it doesn’t help it when it comes to PR.  We don’t seem to like slime, we seem to, unfairly, associate it with primitive beings or alien lifeforms.  And there is nothing primitive about the octopus.

If you are going to fear the octopus, I think it should be because of their intelligence.  If any other creature could take over humanity’s rule of the world, it could easily be the octopus.  They are clever in the ways that an octopus needs to be, they learn and problem solve and they have theory of mind.  Theory of mind is considered to be a sophisticated skill which means that you are self aware and that you know others may have different thoughts to you – I think this, but you might think that.

Their ability to understand others may think differently helps them when it comes to camouflage.  They have to assess whether their disguise is working, that is, does the other creature believe it.  And they have to predict how animals will react to certain colouring and patterns.  For example, whilst fish have good memories, will they realise that the red octopus is the same threat that was presenting as a pale, spotted creature a second ago?

“Mischief and craft are plainly seen to be the characteristics of this creature”
– Claudius Aelianus, 3rd century

Instead of fearing these creatures, instead of turning them into sea monsters and symbols of evil, I think we should admire them.  They are curious, inventive and adaptable.  They take multitasking to the extreme having to coordinate all their limbs whilst changing colour, shape and texture, at the same time as going through cognitive processes such as learning, thinking, deciding and remembering.  And they have to interpret the intense amount of sensory information that’s coming to them via the suckers which are tasting and touching all the time.

These are beautiful, interesting and inspiring creatures and I hope that as we learn more about them, they will be portrayed in a more accurate way, as remarkable beings who have much to teach us.

Further reading

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