I know a lot of you are wondering the same thing I have been wondering lately: exactly what are all the octopuses doing on the ocean floor when we’re not keeping an eye on them? I’m happy to report that after extensive research by agents of The Department of Keeping Tabs on Octopuses, it’s safe to say that they are doing plenty of interesting stuff. It’s actually pretty hard to know where to start.
Octopus means “Eight footed” in Greek, so if you’re going to talk about more than one octopus, Greek convention dictates that you use “octopuses” as the plural. Some people prefer “octopi” or “octopodes”, but to me, octopi sounds like a dessert, and octopode sounds either like some kind of worm or maybe a radio tube. So I’m using octopuses. And my mother was Greek. By the way, octopuses have arms, not tentacles. Tentacles only have one sucker. Each octopus arm has around 250 independent suckers. Each sucker is roughly as intelligent as a small border collie.
Octopuses are smart creatures, generally regarded as the most intelligent of all invertebrates even when you include politicians. They are master problem solvers, escape artists and camouflage experts. Rumor has it that octopuses are even being trained as special operatives by the U.S. Military, due to their unique abilities and powerful brains.
There are myriads of coconut shells lying around in many places on the ocean floor, mostly near places where there are coconut palms, oddly enough, and some octopuses have used this to their advantage. The octopus pictured below is comfortably ensconced in its coconut-shell house, already looking a lot like Casper the Friendly Ghost but still thinking hard about what it’s going to wear for Hallowe’en.
But there’s more.
Julian Finn, an octopus researcher in Melbourne, Australia, was probably one of the first to report that members of at least one species of octopus have learned to carry two coconut shells around, scuttling about with an awkward gait known as “stilt walking”.
The following is a link to a clip of an octopus in field training as a Navy SEAL (Slimy Eerie Aquatic Leptosome) displaying its ability to seamlessly segue from stilt-walking to defensive maneuvering under enemy fire: Octopus Stilt-Walking
If you can’t be bothered to watch the clip, here’s a capsule summary: a veined octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus) lumbers along the seafloor, minding its own business and lugging its coconut shells. Suddenly it stops, hops into one of the shells, pulls the other shell over top itself like a helmet, then rolls off down an incline.
Why did it do this? No one knows. Maybe it was late for supper. And since you asked, supper for an octopus consists mostly of shellfish, which it consumes by “drilling a hole in the shell and slurping out the soft parts.” I’m not sure how an octopus drills a hole though.
Male Octopus: “Honey, I just broke another drill bit. I’m going to hop into my coconut-shell vehicle and roll over to Underwater Tool Den for a new one. Don’t wait up.”
Female Octopus (aka “Hen”): OK. If you wake me up I’m going to peck you mercilessly.
The only thing wrong with that scenario is that octopuses are solitary creatures who only get together to mate. Sadly, not long after they mate, they both die. No wonder they’re solitary.
But sometimes the male’s demise is, for lack of a better word, untimely. People are studying this for a living. I know, because I found a paper which includes a positively riveting account of a hapless male octopus who was attacked, suffocated, had its ink-sac punctured and was ultimately cannibalized by a hen after mating with her 13 times in 3.5 hours. (That male probably had it coming.) It’s a great paper which includes some beautiful color photos featuring coral, octopuses and ink-clouds.
I don’t know about you, but I happen to think that all this business with the coconut shells demonstrates a pretty fair degree of intelligence. Man didn’t invent the automobile until the last 150 years or so, but octopuses have probably been rolling around the ocean floor in their shell vehicles since their debut in the Carboniferous Period more than 300 million years ago. (By the way, the Carboniferous Period is that epoch in Earth’s history when nobody was worrying much about carbon dioxide.)
But intelligent creatures are easily bored, so if you stick an octopus in a tank, you need to give it some stuff to diddle with, otherwise it will probably try to escape. You have to basically weld the lid on to the tank because an octopus can fit through a pretty small hole, as shown in this faintly disturbing video clip: Octopus oozing through a small opening
If it can’t escape, a bored octopus might resort to amusing itself by chewing on things such as one of its arms. (Don’t worry; the arm will grow back.) This sounds suspiciously like my border collie, Mickey. He too, is easily bored and will amuse himself by selecting one toy out of his vast array and worrying at it until all the stuffing comes out. So far he still has all his appendages though. From time to time, when I’m bored, I amuse myself by wondering what would happen if you crossed an octopus with a border collie.
When I was trolling the Web for octopus facts, I got to thinking about how people decide how many interesting facts they will post about any given topic. The first few sites I went to listed an even number of octopus facts. So I thought hmmm…octopuses have eight arms and eight is an even number. Maybe I’m on to something here…But then I started running across sites that listed prime, or at least odd numbers of octopus facts: 11, 15, 35. So much for my theory.
The only thing I can safely conclude is that there are a lot of octopus-fact sites out there, and most of these sites reference a book by Katherine Harmon Courage called: Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea. I have a copy but I haven’t read it yet. I think you should get one. Then you won’t have to rely on me for your octopus information.
Speaking of information, one site I went to noted that octopuses are “limited in their ability to gather information” due to their short lifetimes. That’s probably a good thing. Who knows what one would do if it had more information. Run for President maybe?
There’s a lot more I could get into, such as the copper content of their (blue) blood, their ink, their hectocotyli (don’t ask) and last but not least, the “Dumbo Octopus”.
I’m running out of space, so I’m going to close with a few simple dictums for would-be octopus owners:
- Never give your octopus access to any books; especially not ones about making weapons.
- Don’t put a shark you happen to be fond of together with an octopus. A big octopus can break the spine of a shark.
- It’s OK to have other pets in the house if you have an octopus. I read about an octopus in Thunder Bay, Ontario that was friends with a dog. Whenever the dog pressed its nose to the tank, the octopus would come up to the glass and change colour: black where the dog’s nose touched the glass, and brown to match the rest of the dog.
- By the way, if you own a border collie, consider getting an octopus to keep it company. If you have an octopus but no border collie, I might lend Mickey to you.
- Consider letting your octopus run in the 2020 Presidential election. We could do worse.
Next column: Interesting facts about border collies