Animal parents: from self sacrifice to murder

In the animal kingdom, reproduction is a vast and interesting topic with many different methods having evolved.  Take for example the frog mums who let tadpoles develop in their tummy and then have to regurgitate them.  Or any one of the marsupials who give birth to jellybean sized young who then have to struggle across mum to find her pouch where lies safety and food.  I’ve written before about kangaroos and how females are essentially a baby making conveyor belt with young at various stages ‘on the go’.

Birth might sound difficult for the kangaroo but I’m betting the hyena is looking on wistfully… Female hyenas experience horrific births.  Their birth canal is a funny shape, it’s longer than most similar sized mammals and the umbilical cord is short.  This means there is a higher risk of asphyxiation, but it gets worse.  The baby’s head is too big to pass through the clitoris (hyenas have an unusual genital makeup and urination, fertilisation and birthing are all carried out through the clitoris) so when a mother gives birth, the clitoris tears.  Not just painful, this can be deadly, with estimates of over 10% of females dying the first time they give birth and more than half of cubs being stillborn.  Things don’t get much better for those cubs that survive either… they tend to arrive in litters of two and the one that is born first tends to kill the second within minutes of birth.

Not necessarily a difficult birth, but the frilled shark has to suffer pregnancy for over three years…  The babies grow a frustrating ½ inch per month and don’t emerge into the water until they reach 1 ½ to 2 feet long…

On land, the longest pregnancy falls to elephants who have to endure almost two years of pregnancy before a baby pops out but thankfully, once little ellie has arrived, the whole herd play a role in raising it.  Similarly, sea lions have collective arrangements with a nursery so they can drop off the pups and then head out to feed.  This rota system works well for sea lions but this communal approach isn’t the case for all animals.  In many species, mum and dad don’t actually engage in parenting and in others, the burden falls on just one parent.  And in some cases, this burden can literally kill mum.

Self sacrificing parents include octopus mums who guard their eggs for several months, starving during this time as they can’t leave them.  Once they hatch, the mother dies.  As sad as this is, it pales in comparison to the desert spider.  When the female desert spider lays an egg sac, her insides start to liquefy.  Once her babies hatch, she regurgitates her innards for her young to eat and nine days later, only a husk remains.

When desert spider lays an egg sac, her tissues start to degrade until the spiderlings hatch. Once this happens, she regurgitates her own liquefied insides for the babies to eat.  9 days later they finish up her innards and then head off into the world, leaving her husk behind…

For orangutans the substantial workload falls to mum who has to spend 8 years raising her babies, longer than any other animal single parent.

Whilst pregnancy and childrearing might be tough for mum, not all dads are hands off.  Indeed, in some cases, its only the male who’s involved in child rearing – the male rhea receives eggs from various females to incubate and rear and the same is true for the cassowary.

Indeed, this system – where the males look after the young from several females, and females spread their brood between several males – is common, especially among fish.
– Olivia Judson

Childcare arrangements vary throughout the natural world with some parents having no involvement, some species specialising in single parenthood and others working together to raise their children.  The type of gestation affects the possible roles for parents.  In mammals for example, where the fetus develops in the womb, there isn’t a lot that the males can do.  For birds however, dad can sit on the eggs and provide food for the chicks just as well as mum can.

Looking at a couple of egg examples, we can see there are different levels of involvement and different roles the parents can play.  The spraying characid is a fish that lays its eggs out of water – the female leaps out of water and lays eggs, then the male leaps out and fertilises them, an act which is repeated until about 300 eggs have been laid.  For the next three days, dad has to stay with them and splash the eggs with his tail to keep them from drying out.

For some leeches, parenting is the basic guarding eggs from predators but for African leeches, a kangaroo style approach has been adopted and they carry their young in a pouch, and for another type of leech, the young are glued to their parents tummy.

But moving onto mammals, we find the Dayak fruit bat where both mum and dad produce milk, taking shared responsibility for nursing their young.  Djungarian hamster males are also devoted to their babies.  They “forage for seeds which they stuff into their pouches in their cheeks; on arriving back at the burrow, they unload their cargo by pushing on the pouches with their forepaws so that seeds stream forth” (Judson).  In addition to finding the food, the males help in the birth process, acting as a midwife and helping the pups out.  They also open their airways and lick them clean, even going so far as to eat the placenta.  Male marmosets also carry out a similar role and will go on to play an active role in childrearing.

Hornbills are another devoted parent.  The female climbs into a nest in a tree and seals up the entrance so that there is only space for her beak.  She is then reliant on her partner to bring her food whilst she incubates the chicks.  Once they are born, the father must bring food for the whole family until it is time for them to emerge.  Overall, the female spends as much as 137 days cooped up in the nest.

But there’s always two sides to a story…  And on the flip side to these dedicated parents, we find infanticide.

In many species where fatherhood is clear, males will kill offspring that is not there.  Infanticide gets pesky children out of the way so that dad doesn’t have to spend resources, time and energy on raising them.  They also do this because without children around, the females get in season and thus he can get her pregnant and have children of his own.  Squirrels, wolves and primates are some of the creatures that engage in this behaviour and about 34% of gorilla infant deaths and 64% of languar infant deaths are down to infanticide (Bondar).

In species which are particularly prone to infanticide, females have evolved a number of countermeasures such as keeping babies in burrows or pouches so that males can’t get to them but there are times when even mum can’t keep their baby alive.

“In rodents, an increased incidence of infanticide is observed for males during periods of food deprivation, and for females during periods of lactation (which confers high energetic demands).”
– Carin Bondar

In coot and moorhen families, who have a large number of chicks at once, parents tend to feed the closest mouth, but if one chick becomes particularly demanding, the parents will try and discourage it by picking it up and shaking it, sometimes killing it.

In some animals, a male having a mistress can lead to the death of the children, the ultimate in wicked stepmothers!  The mistress will often murder the wife’s children and if the opportunity arises, vice versa.

“In both the house sparrow and the great reed warbler, for example, a male with two mates will help only the female whose clutch hatches first, so to ensure herself of male assistance, a savvy mistress will smash all the wife’s eggs.”
– Olivia Judson

Murder isn’t only a risk that comes from your parents; the sand shark practices intrauterine cannibalism, the biggest fetus gobbles up its embryonic siblings whilst in the womb. Whilst an extreme example, siblingcide is not uncommon in the animal kingdom.  In many invertebrates, cannibalism is the way to get rid of your pesky brothers and sisters and thus not only do you get a good meal, you also guarantee increased access to resources going forward.  Whilst not so extreme, eagles and hyenas also kill their siblings, although they wait until after birth.

Of course there are many other interesting births and parenting techniques in the animal kingdom and I could never do any more than scrape the surface here but if these exmaples have whet your appetite, try checking out some of the links below and look into seahorses, that well known fully involved dad!

Suggested reading:

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…

Sex in the animal kingdom is vastly more exciting than much of human sex.  Just look at the praying mantis – she literally eats her mate!

The sex lives of animals are just as diverse as the different species are and, despite what some people might have you think, sex in the animal kingdom isn’t just for reproduction.  We can be sure of this because some animals have sex when they aren’t in season and so reproduction is not an option, and others engage in masturbation and same sex sexual activity.  That being said, in this post, I’m going to look at the sex itself and consider other sexual activity in another post.  To start with, let’s take a quick look at how you might attract a mate.

If you’re a male hippo, you might try spraying urine and faeces over the female that’s caught your eye.  A male bowerbird will build an elaborate bower to entice a female.  Other creatures might identify an appropriate male through song or scent or via chemical signals in urine markers.  For sea slugs, it’s a poke between the eyes that gets your partner in the mood…  Violence is also a hallmark for elephant seals, with the male being much bigger than the females.  A male will fight for a beach and then mate with all the females on it.  Whether they want to or not.  Some creatures will even use electricity to try and attract a suitable mate.

In different species, what makes an attractive mate differs.  For female zebra finches, it’s the level of exploratory behaviour that matters whereas for orangutans, it’s all about the males ability to share.  In the orangutan world, a male who shares is important because males can be coercive and sexually violent towards females.

If none of this convinces you of the complex nature of animal sex, perhaps you should check out the leopard slugs mating process, of which there is a handy youtube video.

Lets also take a quick look at pandas; pandas are well known for being terrible at sex but this isn’t the case.  A big issue with breeding in captivity has been trying to pair up same sex pandas and expecting baby pandas…

“The wild panda is a secret stud, fond of threesomes and rough sex… Female pandas prefer the males that can leave their sexy scent marks the highest up a tree.  Scientists have described males adopting a selection of athletic poses – ‘squat’, ‘leg-cock’ and, most remarkably, ‘handstand’ – in order to squirt their pee as high as possible.”
– Lucy Cook

We often assume in the animal kingdom that if monogamy is not the norm for a species, that it’s the male who has multiple partners whilst females have one.  This is not the case.  And biologically it makes sense.  If a female mates with a male and then realises there’s a better male, she’s going to want her babies to come from the second male so they are of the best genetic quality.  Additionally, there is a lot of sexual violence and coercion so the female may have been forced into mating with a male she doesn’t want to reproduce with.  For some males, a gift can entice the female and, in those species, it makes a lot of sense for the female to play the field!

“Female fallow deer deliver only a single offspring per year and therefore have limited chances to get it right.  They often seek the most dominant eligible bachelors for sperm deposits: however if too many females have ‘come-a-calling’ he’s liable to be sperm-depleted or may provide ejaculates with a more limited supply.  With only one offspring per year, it’s vital for females to ensure successful fertilisation, so they often engage in polyandry as a form of insurance.”
– Carin Bondar

When it comes to sex organs, the animal world is also pretty diverse.  Opossoms have bifurcated penises and vaginas which can accommodate these.  Hyena’s clitoris very closely resembles a penis and extends to an impressive 20cm!  The female spotted hyena is the only known mammal with no external vaginal opening, instead they have to urinate, copulate and give birth through the pseudo-penis… Painful!

Looking to the males of the world, we find a beetle with a spiny penis and ducks with corkscrew penises (and females with corkscrew vaginas of course).  Slugs also have corckscrew penises and if they happen to be reluctant to come out again after sex, the partner will just, er, nibble it off…  For the tuberous bush cricket, it’s the testes that cause the problem, taking up most of their abdomen:

“At nearly 14% of their body weight, they are disproportionately large when compared to other species. Just think, a 100kg human would be walking around with 14kg of testicles, which would be mighty uncomfortable.”
Susan Lawler

But if you thought that was mind blowing, wait till you hear about the Drosophila bifurca, or to you and me, a kind of fly.  The male produces 6cm sperm, more than 20 times the length of the male!

We tend to assume that orgasms are strictly a human affair but this isn’t the case at all.  scientists have detected orgasm in many different species including macaques, orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees, although it should be noted these are generally the males of the species.  Perhaps because most human research about orgasms is about men and so the markers of an orgasm are male centric…  But that’s just this feminist’s ponderings about why…

There are also those animals that never have penis in vagina sex.  For example, African mouthbrooder cichlids reproduce orally.  Males will approach a female who then opens her mouth, which is where she carries her eggs, the male then sprays the eggs with sperm and fertilises them. Females will carry the eggs in her mouth until they hatch…

The argonaut octopus also doesn’t need to have ‘traditional’ sex.  Despite being very sexual, they engage in something called tele-sex where sperm is produced in a specially adapted penis which then detaches from the body and swims off to find a female. This penis then impregnants her and eventually the male regrows a new penis.

In another post I will consider animal sexuality but as a taster of what is to come, consider the whiptail lizards – a species made up entirely of females.  Instead of mating in the conventional way, or as a result of having both sets of organs, they make clones of themselves!  That said, they still need to engage in a mating ritual to stimulate egg production…  As only females are available, they take it in turns to act of the roles of males and females.

All of these weird and wonderful sounding sex lives just scratch the surface of how animals reproduce.  And as sex isn’t confined to reproduction, in another blog post, I’ll be looking more into the types of activity animals engage in without expecting babies to come along.

Suggested reading:

Learning from the writers of the sea

This post could be epic and uncontrollable*, it could look at all the ways people have written about the sea and try to unpick what works and what doesn’t.  But that would end up being a book in itself.  Instead I’m going to focus on Rachel Carson, particularly The Sea Around Us, and Sy Mongomery who has a number of nature writing books to her name but the one I’ve just read is The Soul of an Octopus.

I’ve chosen to think about Montgomery alongside Carson because the works are very different.  If we think about The Soul of an Octopus with The Sea Around us, we’re looking at two different sea topics – that of a particular species and that of the sea itself.  The books were written at different times and whilst only 60 odd years apart, our knowledge of the sea and her inhabitants has changed a lot.  Because of these differences, I am not seeking to compare the writings.  Instead I want to look at the strengths of both of them and try to unpick what makes them good examples of nature writing.

There are some obvious starting points which both have in common, crucially I think, is the scientific knowledge to write about their topic.  This doesn’t mean you need to know everything, but you need to base your work in fact.

Rachel Carson

Carson writes in a lyrical, poetic fashion, conveying her love of the sea through her enthusiastic choice of language.

Her book Under the Sea Wind is a fictionalised account of animals’ journeys through life and through the landscape so it makes use of different techniques to The Sea Around Us.

Under the Sea Wind uses narratives which are interwoven in a non linear form, instead cycling through the year much as nature herself does.  She focuses on particular species, and by doing so she is essentially creating biological biographies for her characters and succeeds in bringing them to live despite the limitations imposed by choosing a non verbal cast.

The characters can’t speak so the third person narrator helps us to understand what’s going on and provides the scientific content.  She also uses human language, such as talking about what food a fish loved best or that another fish had changed her winter plumage.  This is nudging towards anthropomorphism which is not highly thought of in scientific communities but it does make the animal characters more relatable and Carson seems cautious about over humanising her characters.

Think about what you don’t include as much as what you do.  For example, talking about Under The Sea Wind, Carson said:

“The fish and the other sea creatures must be central characters and their world must be portrayed as it looks and feels to them — and the narrator must not come into the story or appear to express an opinion.”

As such, we see human impact only through the eyes of her characters.

When it comes to language, Carson has a skill which lets her synthesise beauty and knowledge and still maintain a poetic voice.  She mixes a scientific fact based language with descriptive adjectives and nouns and in doing so, she provides specific, objective information with aesthetic details.

Somewhere I read that in writing about the sea, Carson aims to help her readers fall in love with it as much as she has.  In Under The Sea Wind she introduces us to the creatures we come to love and in The Sea Around Us, she guides us to a deeper relationship with the sea itself.

In both books, the sea features as a character in her own right but in The Sea Around Us, she stands centre stage.  There are creatures and plants interspersed but the real drama surrounds the entire ocean.  She creates powerful, memorable images for her readers which capture the imagination as well as put us in awe of nature.  Where she wrote biographies of animals in her first book, here she writes a biography of the sea.

I wasn’t expected to be mesmerised by an account of the creation of the oceans or how the tides developed.  How could anyone turn this dry science into captivating prose?  But Carson does.

“She made of waves a romance, whence they came, how they came, why they were the shape they were, how they bring “the feel of the distant places” interwoven with solid scientific data.”
– Ann H. Zwinger

Her words fascinate and entrance us.  Moving us and leading our eyes to see new things and our hearts towards a deeper understanding of the waters that surround us.  Her careful attention to detail and the pleasurable language and turn of phrase help to create this beautiful poetic prose.

“this combination of science and scintillating prose provides fascinating insights into the mysteries of the tides”
Billy Mills

What we don’t see in The Sea Around Us is “anecdotes of the kind that editors often suggest to “bring warmth” to the page” (Zwinger).  For Carson, the sea is the star, it is the focus rather than being a backdrop for her observations and opinions.  She speaks of the sea with metaphors and imagery but she does not place herself, or any narrator, in the words.

At the risk of overquoting, I think Zwinger sums up what I love about this book when she says:

“It is so beautifully written and researched, filled with enthralling descriptions of the sea.  It rattles no swords, is not strident or aggressive or confrontational.  Its potency lies in the charm and skill of the writing, its erudition and rich organisation of facts, and in its personal reticence – how quietly it captivates our attention.  Before we know it we are charmed into learning about the wonders of the ocean, then into a deep awareness of not only their health but how it affects that of the whole natural world.”

Sy Montgomery

You can read an essay about Montgomery’s first meeting with an octopus on Orion.

Montgomery sets out to “defend the octopus against centuries of character assassination” and the blurb begins this work:

“[The Soul of an Octopus] explores the emotional and physical world of the octopus’ surprisingly complex, intelligent, and spirited creature: and the remarkable connections it makes with humans.”

Through my eyes, I have found this book to be primarily about the human experience of ‘other’, with the octopus proving a mirror to reflect back our attitudes and prejudices.

This is a book of characters, human and aquatic, that I grew to love.  Through them we see more ways in which nature can affect us.  There is a volunteer who finds the aquarium to be a comforting, healing place.  Another who worries a lot over the watery residents.  Some of the human characters are portrayed as feeling, or being, ‘other’ outside the aquarium, paralleling the theme of the octopus as other.  Within this watery world, those boundaries are breached and relationships are formed.

One of the things I really enjoy about a lot of nature writing is the connection between nature and humans.  This, as well as being a piece about octopuses, is a piece about friendship, about relationships.  I don’t think Montgomery’s book would have been even half as successful had she chosen to write about octopuses in general.  In choosing a few specific creatures, she has been able to personalise the experience and in doing so helps us relate to it.

I think the inclusion of more than one octopus also helps illustrate their vastly different personalities and the different ways they interact with humans.  Alongside her relationship with the octopuses, we see the affect they are having on the rest of her life.  I enjoy this widening impact of nature and how interactions with nature can change us.

In places emotional, in others humorous, this is an entertaining yet deeply moving love story.  Very early on, Montgomery lays out how most people feel about octopuses – slimy and monstrous – and from there she gently guides us through her experience, showing us, not preaching to us, why we too should love this remarkable creature. I think that gentleness, that guiding, is a quality of good nature writing.  It is easy to tell someone they should care about something, but much more powerful to show them why and to lead them on that journey of discovery.  The linear narration of the story is such that we are on this path of wonder with Montgomery and we see things unfolding in order.

Alongside this time line of deepening admiration, her use of poetic and sensual language soothes the reader into falling in love with these marvellous, characterful creatures.

The subtitle for one version** of the book is “A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” and whilst we never delve deeply into consciousness, Montgomery touches on it in some interesting ways.  A much criticised wander into her experience learning to dive, to see an octopus in it’s own habitat, takes us to pondering about changing our consciousness whether it be through hallucinogens or simply by entering the ocean.  Visiting this other world changes our perspective and our perception and could have much the same effect as meditation when it comes to consciousness.

Montgomery’s work invites us to reflect on ourselves and our society, to think about beings which are so entirely different to ourselves and to appreciate a different kind of intelligence.

So, what to learn?

Although true of all good writing, it is worth highlighting, use adjectives, verbs and nouns.  Play around with sentence length.  Show don’t tell.  Use all your senses.

Think about structure.  For The Soul of an Octopus, a linear format seems to work really well but for Under the Sea Wind, Carson’s use of cyclical narrative echoes that of the creatures who are ‘telling’ the story.

Regardless of the topic, create characters which have depth and let the reader get to know them within an environmental context as well as a relationship context.  The entirety of nature is interconnected in one way or another and thus nature writing too should not focus solely on one aspect.  Characters need not be human, we can think of animals and plants as characters with roles to play.

Similarly, showing the writer within the writing helps the reader to see the impact nature has had on her, her life and her thinking.  However, omitting the human voice also has a role to play in nature writing, for example in Under The Sea Wind.

Include emotions alongside facts and inject with humour if it feels natural – don’t force in anecdotes as the editors Zwinger mentions suggest.

Attention to detail matters.  Know the names of species.  Firstly, it gives your writing more depth, but secondly, knowing the names of things means you notice the things more often.

Consider your aim.  Do you want people to love your topic?  Do you want to raise awareness of a particular issue?  Do you want to create an extended metaphor which reflects the state of humanity?

Develop your voice.  The writing styles of Carson and Montgomery are very different but both feel indisputably theirs.  Write authentically.

And as with all writing, read.

*Turns out it was inevitably going to be a pretty long post…!

**Mine has the subtitle: A surprising exploration of one of the world’s most intriguing creatures

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

Sea Monsters: Squid

Squid and octopuses* are both cephalopods and they are very similar.  Indeed, the names are used interchangeably by some people.  But the are different.  I’m going to be doing a separate post on octopuses** but when I’m looking at myths and legends its best to assume that they refer to a tentacled species and not make strict divides about whether it’s octopus or squid.

Squid or octopus?

Squid Octopus
More bullet like shape and a more hydrodynamic body Rounder in shape
More fixed shape Very flexible, can change shape and squeeze into tiny spaces
Active swimmers Tend to stick to the sea floor
Have two fins, a mantle, a head, eight arms and two tentacles, which are equipped with hooks and suckers or sucker rings Have a mantle, a head, eight arms equipped with one or two rows of suckers but with no hooks or sucker rings
Have a stiff structure called a pen which acts like a flexible backbone No bones or shell
Use tentacles to reach out and grab prey Inject poison into their prey which paralyses it

The Kraken

Today I’m going to look at the giant squid and sea monsters.  Most cultures have a form of tentacled sea monster in their mythology.  Sailors were terrified of the Kraken, a sea monster who, legend told, liked the taste of human flesh and who enjoyed sinking ships.  These legends will have arisen from a number of different sea creature sightings but these almost certainly included the giant squid.

The stories from northern Europe tell us that the kraken would start swimming in circles around a ship, creating a deadly vortex into which the ship would be dragged.  Larger creatures would just drag the ship down with their tentacles.  Amber found on the beaches of the north sea were believed to be the Kraken’s excrement…

The giant squid’s main predator is the sperm whale so perhaps some of the reported kraken sightings came from whaling boats who were seeing the tangle between predator and prey at the same time as seeing the giant squid for the first time.

Today we see aspects of the kraken, or the tentacled sea monster, in literature and film where portrayals of aliens often have cephalopod features.

Giant squid

The giant squid lies in the murky waters between fiction and reality.  Portrayed in literature as a monster lurking in the depths, this huge creature lives between 300 and 1000m down and isn’t actually the largest squid species.  That honour goes to the colossal squid which weighs in about 500kg compared to the 275kg of the giant squid.

If we turn to literature, we find Tennyson’s kraken is a slumbering monster in the cold, dark depths of the ocean.  In 20,000 leagues under the sea, a squid like beast tries to drag a ship underwater and devours the terrified crew.  But the first known piece of literature to suggest a giant tentacled sea being was the Odyssey from ancient Greece where it was portrayed as a beast to be slain, or at least avoided.  These depictions all suggest something creepy, scary and certainly Other.

In the giant squid, or the kraken, we find a scapegoat for our fears of the sea, like the shark.  This creature lives in a world far from ours, a world beyond the reach of sunlight.  And hence it embodies our fears of the dark, of the shadows, of the unknown.

There is also something around their bodily organisation that unsettles some people.  They have clearly identifiable features – hands, arms, head etc – but they are clearly different.  They are like us and yet not.  They have a “grotesque suggestion of a face” (HG Wells).  There is a parallel here with disability and bodily difference; the space between the self and other blurs and with it, the fear of becoming other rises.  (NB, I’m not saying you should be uncomfortable or afraid of disability but bodily difference can and does create emotional reactions in people.)

They look unnatural to us and our encounters of them further confirm our predetermined opinions.  When we see giant squid, it tends to be at the surface*** and these animals are almost certainly dying.  We see them when they are fighting for their life, when they are scared and so it is no surprise that they lash out at boats.

To focus on their association with monsters is to deny the extraordinary beauty of the giant squid, and all the other squids by association.  Far from being the terrifying killer from the deep, they are gentle and fascinating.  They peck delicately at their food, not being able to swallow large pieces, and are scared of loud noises.


*yes, that’s correct.

**still correct!

***It wasn’t until 2012 that we got the first footage of a giant squid at it’s natural depth

Octopus: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Deck


What is an octopus?  What are these strange and bizarre creatures?  They are a “cephalopod mollusc” with (to the tune of the 12 days of christmas…) four pairs of arms, three beating hearts, two beady eyes, one sharp beak and absolutely no skeleton.

They are very different to us humans and that can make it really hard to understand them, to put ourselves in their many shoes.  We also don’t see many of them in our day to day life.  At least I don’t!

Let’s start with the arms.  

There are 8 of them, which numerologically apparently is linked to balance of material and spiritual needs.  Other links to the number 8 include the wheel of the year which has 8 points, it’s considered lucky or holy in some cultures. It is also often associated with infinity, turn it sideways and voila.

There’s a couple of ways of thinking of the arms; as being pulled in many directions or being able to reach in many directions.  Are you active or passive in this?  Do you have your fingers in many pies?  This can be good, you’re hedging your bets, but don’t get stretched too thin.

The arms have up to 300 suckers each which let them taste and smell.  They can work together or separately.  An obvious metaphor which asks does your left hand know what your right hand is doing.  All those different pies you have fingers in, are they cohesive and complementary or are they competing with each other?

Octopuses (yes, that’s correct) can detach tentacles if they need to so they can escape from predators.  As we saw with the lizard, this may be asking you to sacrifice something for the greater good.

And the structure.

No skeleton?  The octopus is truly spineless.  And they use this to get into really small spaces.  They are super flexible, agile and adaptable which are great lessons for us to learn in life.

Defence mechanisms

When it comes to defence, the octopus has a few tricks up their numerous sleeves; camouflage, ink, hiding, venom and as we’ve already learnt, detaching limbs.

They are sometimes call the master of disguise, the king of camouflage and you will quickly see why.  They can change their colour and their texture very quickly, and if that’s not enough, they can be two colours at once!  So they may be half camouflaged because there’s a predator on their right but there’s an octopus on the left that they want to communicate with so the other half might be set to stand out!  How amazing is that?!  A lot of animals use colour to communicate and to hide but how many can do both at the same time?!  This truly blew my mind.

And there is so much metaphorical gold there that I don’t know where to start!  Actually, decision made, I’m not going to.  I’m just going to leave it there for you to mull over.

Possibly less exciting, they have ink which they can expel to help them hide and to distract the predator.  The ink also harms the predators, irritating eyes and messing with their sense of smell and taste.  With ink, my mind leaps straight to writing and, for me at least, writing something down is often much easier than talking to someone.  Writing lets me get my thoughts straight, figure out the words I need etc and this helps me to stand up for myself.  Any self advocacy I do will be done via writing as much as possible.

Octopuses love den building, don’t we all?!  They tend to live alone and aren’t very territorial and move around a lot so the den isn’t their home, it’s a temporary safe place and somewhere they can eat their catch in peace.  They are built into natural and man-made structures and because the octopus is so flexible, they can have tiny openings.  I’ve written before about my craving for small spaces when my mental health is bad and for me there is such a huge sense of security that can be gained from a den.  It’s a way of marking out a boundary, it’s a retreat from the world, you can leave things outside and take some time out from your worries.  I’m all for den building and if you can, do it!

Whilst most aren’t harmful to humans, all species of octopus have venom but that seems almost an afterthought when we consider the other mechanisms they have to survive.


Aristotle had a low opinion of octopuses, considering them stupid but they are far from it.  In the same way we could consider their body strange because it is so different to ours, we could consider their intellect strange.  But both are highly developed to meet the needs of the octopus and as such I don’t think we can even begin to try and quantify how intelligent an octopus is.

They are quick learners, possibly able to learn through observation and are curious explorers able to use tools and make decisions.  They have been shown to have quite good memories but unlike us, their neurons aren’t all in one place (ours are in our skull – the brain) but instead are also spread through their arms which speeds up processing.

This card asks us to combine flexibility with intellect.  To think outside the box.  To consider things from a different perspective.

Myths etc

The octopus is often seen as evil and appears as a monstrous creature, such as the Kraken, which attack humans and boats.  It has been used to represent Medusa and in Polynesian culture, Kanaloa is the malevolent god of the underworld and is symbolised by an octopus.

On a better note, they appear in some erotic art, all those arms could result in some good sex!