November 10, 2011, by Sy Montgomery
Shortly after Sy Montgomery finished writing “Deep Intellect,” her feature about octopus intelligence in the current issue of Orion, she learned that her subject, Athena, had passed away. Athena’s successor is Octavia, the New England Aquarium’s new Giant Pacific Octopus with whom Sy has visited regularly. On November 15, Orion hosted a live web discussion with Montgomery and other animal intelligence experts about Athena, Octavia, and the intellectual lives of octopuses; listen to an audio recording of the conversation here.
Recently, in Boston, I met Steve Curwood and Eileen Bolinsky, both from the radio program Living on Earth, for a segment they were producing about octopuses. As part of the show, we were hoping for an encounter with the New England Aquarium’s new Giant Pacific Octopus, Octavia.
But Octavia, I knew, was a very different individual from Athena—the subject of “Deep Intellect”—who had been so playful and affectionate with me. Bill Murphy, the keeper who has been involved in the daily lives of five different octopuses over the years, characterized Octavia’s personality this way: “Aggressive and standoffish.”
“Because Athena died suddenly, this one, who came from British Columbia, was a lot bigger, a lot older” than the others when they first joined the aquarium, Wilson Menashi told me. Wilson is the volunteer who built the enrichment cubes to amuse the octopuses at the aquarium, and he’s worked with the animals for seventeen years; he’s known as a bit of an “octopus whisperer.” But Octavia hadn’t warmed up even to him.
Usually, he said, before the octopus on public display nears the end of life (around age three), the aquarium orders a young replacement, an octopus-in-waiting, who gets used to being with people at a young age. But Octavia was older when she was caught; she might have been two or even two-and-a-half already.
Octopuses who grow up at the aquarium, he explained, are usually quite friendly with the people they know. They’re weighed weekly as young pups. “Those are the most playful,” he said, “but Octavia is different. At first, she wouldn’t come to us at all.”
Octavia is different in another way, too, he said. The previous, younger octopuses did not seem to know how to use camouflage. Though they could turn color—red when angry, white when calm—he never saw them turn color to match their surroundings. But Octavia does.
This fascinated me. It strongly suggests that camouflage is not instinctive, but learned. More evidence, then, for the case that octopuses’ invertebrate intelligence is remarkably, incredibly like our own. But would my friends at Living on Earth get to see this? I worried that all they would actually witness and be able to share with their listeners was an invertebrate holed up in her lair—still as a stone and about as communicative. Not even Wilson could be counted on to excite her interest. And about half the time, she ignores him. “If she doesn’t want to come, forget it,” he said.
I had already learned this myself. Back in July, not long after Athena’s death, I made my first pilgrimage to meet the new octopus, at Senior Aquarist Scott Dowd’s kind invitation. I drove in with my best friend, the writer Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who lives in the next town over from me in New Hampshire. Octavia was then much smaller than Athena, with a head the size of a clementine. She seemed dark and thorny when we looked at her through the public viewing side of her tank. Scott twice tried to entice Octavia to interact with us from the top of her tank. No luck. We left her alone for two hours, and then tried one last time.
Again, Scott waved a fish in the water, at the end of long tongs. This time, one arm came floating toward the surface. “Liz, you touch her!” I cried—Liz had never before touched an octopus and I sensed the opportunity might be fleeting. My best friend mounted the three little stairs to the top of the tank and extended her right index finger to Octavia’s outstretched tentacle—a scene from the Sistine Chapel.
The encounter lasted just a moment. Liz touched the back of Octavia’s slender, slippery tentacle tip, and Octavia, in turn, quested Liz’s index finger with eight of her tiniest suckers.
Both creatures instantly withdrew in alarm.
Months later, I had again tried to make friends with Octavia. Just a few days ago, I had made a date to come see her, before I realized I’d be coming in for the Living on Earth taping.
That morning found Octavia’s suckers plastered to the tank’s glass, her eyes peeking out from behind the hedge of her arms, her skin thorny and dark. I tried to entice her over by holding a squid in my fingers, wafting its scent at her through the water. She wouldn’t budge. After visiting with electric eels, we came back and tried again. No dice. We went to lunch and came back to try yet again. This time, Scott put the squid on the end of the long metal tongs. To our surprise and delight, she grabbed the tongs. I ran up the three steps to the tank and plunged both arms in to see if she would come over to investigate me. Scott was pulling with all his considerable might as she wrapped three of her free arms around my left arm and investigated my right arm with the suckers on another.
She dropped the squid. She wanted the tongs. And now she wanted me, too. If Scott hadn’t had a hold of the tongs, she would have pulled me into the tank.
Now I could finally see how huge she had grown. Her head was the size of a melon, each outstretched tentacle at least three feet long. (I later read that a young octopus can put on another 5 percent of its body weight every day.) Her thorny skin showed excitement, and she was sucking hard enough I knew I’d have hickeys. I couldn’t stroke her. She kept me at arm’s length, her beautiful head too far for me to reach, and I couldn’t free my hands from her grip enough to do anything other than submit to her suction.
How long did the encounter go on? Two minutes? Five? Time stops when you’re in the grip of an octopus. But suddenly she shrank from us. Scott retrieved the tongs. I looked at my hands, which had eight small hickeys. “I was pulling with all my strength!” said Scott. “I was afraid I would end up holding you by the ankles!”
What was happening here? What was she thinking? It was obvious she was interested in more than just eating the squid. I felt no fear, felt no malice in her grip, and yet both Scott and I clearly understood that this was very different from my first joyous and welcoming, playful and affectionate encounter with Athena.
“This may have been some sort of dominance display,” Scott guessed. She obviously wanted the tongs, and may have quite reasonably concluded that I was the thing keeping her from them. Another thought also occurred to me: I had stubbed my toe painfully on some hard tubing on my way to her tank, and my neurotransmitters surely reflected that pain. Perhaps she was interested in me because she tasted my pain, the sign of a struggling prey item.
On the drive home to New Hampshire, I realized that the octopus had actually thrown my back out. She hadn’t, I felt sure, been trying to hurt me. But the encounter wasn’t particularly friendly, either.
During the Living on Earth interview, when Bill Murphy opened the top to Octavia’s tank, Wilson fished a capelin out of the small bucket of fish at the lip of the tank. The huge octopus floated over immediately—not just extending an arm or two, but racing to him with her whole body—and her head floated to the top so she could see us both. Her arms boiled up out of the water and grabbed his hands with some of her largest suckers, and when I plunged my hands in she grabbed me, too. Wilson placed a capelin in the suckers near her mouth and it disappeared—meanwhile, her other arms were curling out of the tank to attach suckers to Steve Curwood’s fingers.
In all the excitement, Octavia somehow managed to steal the bucket of fish that had been resting near the edge of the tank. We noticed that she had it in the tank with her, and she was holding it fast with some of her strongest, biggest suckers while still exploring Wilson, Steve, and me with hundreds of others. She had pulled a fast one, and was clearly pleased with her prize. But she wasn’t interested in the fish. She was holding the bucket in such a way that the bowl of the bucket actually blocked her mouth, its contents facing away from it. She could have easily turned the container around, but instead drew her “skirt” around the bucket almost like a hawk mantles its prey. As she’d been with the tongs the week before, she was more interested in exploring the tool that held the food than the food it contained.
Remembering her interest in objects, I had brought her some presents from home: a heart-shaped rock, a cockle shell, and a mussel shell. I reached into my purse for the rock and placed it in one of her arms. She fingered it with her suckers for a moment—if she were a person I could say she did this just to be polite—and then attached to my skin again. “You’re more interesting than a rock,” Steve said. (“Oh, you probably say that to all the girls,” I replied.)
Patches of her skin were turning white—the color of contentment. “She’s happy!” I said to Wilson. “Oh, yes,” he agreed, “she’s very happy. She is playing!”
Our encounter continued for perhaps half an hour, until Wilson announced that his hands were frozen. As we ran our cold skin under warm water in the sink, I asked Wilson and Bill what had thawed Octavia’s chilly demeanor.
“They’re individuals just like we are,” said Bill. “They have moods.”
Wilson was sanguine. “I’ve given up trying to foretell what humans are going to do,” he said, “much less an octopus.”
Sy Montgomery has swum with pink dolphins in the Amazon, ridden camels in the Gobi, and handled wild tarantulas in French Guiana. The latest of her fifteen books on nature is Birdology. Sy and Octavia will be featured in an upcoming episode of Living on Earth—go here for details. Photo credit: New England Aquarium.