In defense of the octopus, 8 extraordinary facts about the clever cephalopod

Octopus facts
CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

While the octopus is all too frequently cast aside as an odd slimy thing only good for dinner, these remarkable animals are some of the most fascinating creatures on the planet.

They’re not cuddly; they don’t have fluffy fur and big eyes and make us weak in the knees with cooing. Few swoon for the octopus. But if affection were commensurate with traits that are nearly supernatural in their power to wow, octopuses might be the world’s favorite animals.

But alas, instead they inspire legends of sea monsters like Kraken and Lusca, and give form to fictional villains like Ursula and Doc Oc. They incite cringing, not fawning – or are compared to aliens. So with that in mind, allow us to present some arguments for why we think the graceful and brilliant unsung undulating creatures of the sea should be revered rather than vilified.

1. They are magicians

Just like a magician uses smoke and mirrors to make things appear and disappear, so does the octopus – but rather than employing mechanical devices to perform its trick, the octopus uses biology. Using a network of pigment cells and specialized muscles in its skin, the common octopus can almost instantly assume the colors, patterns, and textures of its surroundings. The camouflage is so expertly done that predators pass without notice. Watch one in action here (shown in reverse), it's astounding.

2. They have the coolest escape mechanism

Another trick worthy of a magician or something dreamed up by Q for James Bond is an octopus’ inky cloud that upon release, obscures an aggressor’s view and allows the cephalopod to slip away. And if that weren’t nifty enough, the ink – mostly a mix of pigment and mucous – also contains a compound that irritates the eyes and dulls an attacker’s sense of smell, making the escape artist even harder to follow.

3. They’re Olympian in speed and agility

When threatened, octopuses propel themselves by expelling water from their mantles, reaching speeds as high as 25 miles per hour. Whoosh. They also have agility that is a wonder to behold: They can squeeze their soft bodies into the teeniest of cracks and holes, making a circus contortionist look feeble in comparison.

Watch this: Octopus Houdini escapes boat via tiny hole!

4. They’re smarter than the average bear

CUNY biology professor Peter Godfrey-Smith says that octopuses are, “probably the closest we’ll get to meeting an intelligent alien.” While Aristotle called the octopus, “a stupid creature,” researchers say they have developed intelligence, emotions, and even individual personalities. The crafty cephalopod can navigate through mazes – and resist them if they’re not feeling cooperative. They, solve problems and remember solutions, and take things apart for fun. They can play fetch! They can unplug drains, disconnect wires, escape from labs and will even collect shells and other objects to build fortresses, or "gardens," around their lairs.

5. They have far-reaching brains

This one is crazy: Two-thirds of an octopus’ neurons do not reside in their head, rather, in their arms. Which is to say, an octopus’ arms can take on a variety of independent tasks while their owner is attending to other matters. And if one of those arms becomes detached, researchers have found that the severed arm can crawl away on its own and even grab hold of food and direct it to where the mouth would be if the arm were still attached.

6. They can regenerate lost limbs

Lose one of those smart arms to a predator? No problem! The handy-dandy octopus can just grow a new one with no permanent damage. If only we were so lucky.

7. They have a lot of heart(s)

Yes, hearts – three of them in fact. Two work to transport blood beyond their gills, while number three keeps blood circulating for the organs. And oddly enough, heart number three shuts down when the creature is swimming, which explains why they are more prone to hiding than feeling quickly; swimming exhausts them.

Watch this octopus steal a video camera and make a short film:

8. They’re as old as the hills

And maybe even older. The oldest known octopus fossil comes from a creature that lived 296 million years ago, during the Carboniferous period – it is displayed at the Field Museum in Chicago. It displays the classic eight arms and two eyes, and possibly an ink sac as well. As Smithsonian notes, “long before life on land had progressed beyond puny pre-dinosaur reptiles, octopuses had already established their shape for the millions of years to come.” In terms of seniority, they totally dominate us young’uns.

Bonus: They defy common language

You say octopi, I say octopuses? While octopi has become standard in common usage, it’s not etymologically correct. Octopi was borne out of the incorrect notion that the word comes from Latin; but in fact it comes from the Greek, októpus, meaning “eight foot.” Technically the plural is octopodes, but as the Grammarist points out, “octopus has been in English for centuries and is now an English word when English speakers use it, so there is no reason not to pluralize it in the English manner. Which would mean: octopuses.

For more, see: 8 Unbelievable octopus videos

Tags: Animals | Nature Blows My Mind | Oceans


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