ON AN UNSEASONABLY WARM day in the middle of March, I traveled from New Hampshire to the moist, dim sanctuary of the New England Aquarium, hoping to touch an alternate reality. I came to meet Athena, the aquarium’s forty-pound, five-foot-long, two-and-a-half-year-old giant Pacific octopus.
For me, it was a momentous occasion. I have always loved octopuses. No sci-fi alien is so startlingly strange. Here is someone who, even if she grows to one hundred pounds and stretches more than eight feet long, could still squeeze her boneless body through an opening the size of an orange; an animal whose eight arms are covered with thousands of suckers that taste as well as feel; a mollusk with a beak like a parrot and venom like a snake and a tongue covered with teeth; a creature who can shape-shift, change color, and squirt ink. But most intriguing of all, recent research indicates that octopuses are remarkably intelligent.
Many times I have stood mesmerized by an aquarium tank, wondering, as I stared into the horizontal pupils of an octopus’s large, prominent eyes, if she was staring back at me — and if so, what was she thinking?
Not long ago, a question like this would have seemed foolish, if not crazy. How can an octopus know anything, much less form an opinion? Octopuses are, after all, “only” invertebrates — they don’t even belong with the insects, some of whom, like dragonflies and dung beetles, at least seem to show some smarts. Octopuses are classified within the invertebrates in the mollusk family, and many mollusks, like clams, have no brain.
Only recently have scientists accorded chimpanzees, so closely related to humans we can share blood transfusions, the dignity of having a mind. But now, increasingly, researchers who study octopuses are convinced that these boneless, alien animals — creatures whose ancestors diverged from the lineage that would lead to ours roughly 500 to 700 million years ago — have developed intelligence, emotions, and individual personalities. Their findings are challenging our understanding of consciousness itself.
I had always longed to meet an octopus. Now was my chance: senior aquarist Scott Dowd arranged an introduction. In a back room, he would open the top of Athena’s tank. If she consented, I could touch her. The heavy lid covering her tank separated our two worlds. One world was mine and yours, the reality of air and land, where we lumber through life governed by a backbone and constrained by jointed limbs and gravity. The other world was hers, the reality of a nearly gelatinous being breathing water and moving weightlessly through it. We think of our world as the “real” one, but Athena’s is realer still: after all, most of the world is ocean, and most animals live there. Regardless of whether they live on land or water, more than 95 percent of all animals are invertebrates, like Athena.
The moment the lid was off, we reached for each other. She had already oozed from the far corner of her lair, where she had been hiding, to the top of the tank to investigate her visitor. Her eight arms boiled up, twisting, slippery, to meet mine. I plunged both my arms elbow deep into the fifty-seven-degree water. Athena’s melon-sized head bobbed to the surface. Her left eye (octopuses have one dominant eye like humans have a dominant hand) swiveled in its socket to meet mine. “She’s looking at you,” Dowd said.
As we gazed into each other’s eyes, Athena encircled my arms with hers, latching on with first dozens, then hundreds of her sensitive, dexterous suckers. Each arm has more than two hundred of them. The famous naturalist and explorer William Beebe found the touch of the octopus repulsive. “I have always a struggle before I can make my hands do their duty and seize a tentacle,” he confessed. But to me, Athena’s suckers felt like an alien’s kiss — at once a probe and a caress. Although an octopus can taste with all of its skin, in the suckers both taste and touch are exquisitely developed. Athena was tasting me and feeling me at once, knowing my skin, and possibly the blood and bone beneath, in a way I could never fathom.
When I stroked her soft head with my fingertips, she changed color beneath my touch, her ruby-flecked skin going white and smooth. This, I learned, is a sign of a relaxed octopus. An agitated giant Pacific octopus turns red, its skin gets pimply, and it erects two papillae over the eyes, which some divers say look like horns. One name for the species is “devil fish.” With sharp, parrotlike beaks, octopuses can bite, and most have neurotoxic, flesh-dissolving venom. The pressure from an octopus’s suckers can tear flesh (one scientist calculated that to break the hold of the suckers of the much smaller common octopus would require a quarter ton of force). One volunteer who interacted with an octopus left the aquarium with arms covered in red hickeys.
Occasionally an octopus takes a dislike to someone. One of Athena’s predecessors at the aquarium, Truman, felt this way about a female volunteer. Using his funnel, the siphon near the side of the head used to jet through the sea, Truman would shoot a soaking stream of salt water at this young woman whenever he got a chance. Later, she quit her volunteer position for college. But when she returned to visit several months later, Truman, who hadn’t squirted anyone in the meanwhile, took one look at her and instantly soaked her again.
Athena was remarkably gentle with me — even as she began to transfer her grip from her smaller, outer suckers to the larger ones. She seemed to be slowly but steadily pulling me into her tank. Had it been big enough to accommodate my body, I would have gone in willingly. But at this point, I asked Dowd if perhaps I should try to detach from some of the suckers. With his help, Athena and I pulled gently apart.
I was honored that she appeared comfortable with me. But what did she know about me that informed her opinion? When Athena looked into my eyes, what was she thinking?
WHILE ALEXA WARBURTON was researching her senior thesis at Middlebury College’s newly created octopus lab, “every day,” she said, “was a disaster.”
She was working with two species: the California two-spot, with a head the size of a clementine, and the smaller, Florida species, Octopus joubini. Her objective was to study the octopuses’ behavior in a T-shaped maze. But her study subjects were constantly thwarting her.
The first problem was keeping the octopuses alive. The four-hundred-gallon tank was divided into separate compartments for each animal. But even though students hammered in dividers, the octopuses found ways to dig beneath them — and eat each other. Or they’d mate, which is equally lethal. Octopuses die after mating and laying eggs, but first they go senile, acting like a person with dementia. “They swim loop-the-loop in the tank, they look all googly-eyed, they won’t look you in the eye or attack prey,” Warburton said. One senile octopus crawled out of the tank, squeezed into a crack in the wall, dried up, and died.
It seemed to Warburton that some of the octopuses were purposely uncooperative. To run the T-maze, the pre-veterinary student had to scoop an animal from its tank with a net and transfer it to a bucket. With bucket firmly covered, octopus and researcher would take the elevator down to the room with the maze. Some octopuses did not like being removed from their tanks. They would hide. They would squeeze into a corner where they couldn’t be pried out. They would hold on to some object with their arms and not let go.
Some would let themselves be captured, only to use the net as a trampoline. They’d leap off the mesh and onto the floor — and then run for it. Yes, run. “You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat,” Warburton said. “It’s so weird!”
Octopuses in captivity actually escape their watery enclosures with alarming frequency. While on the move, they have been discovered on carpets, along bookshelves, in a teapot, and inside the aquarium tanks of other fish — upon whom they have usually been dining.
Even though the Middlebury octopuses were disaster prone, Warburton liked certain individuals very much. Some, she said, “would lift their arms out of the water like dogs jump up to greet you.” Though in their research papers the students refer to each octopus by a number, the students named them all. One of the joubini was such a problem they named her The Bitch. “Catching her for the maze always took twenty minutes,” Warburton said. “She’d grip onto something and not let go. Once she got stuck in a filter and we couldn’t get her out. It was awful!”
Then there was Wendy. Warburton used Wendy as part of her thesis presentation, a formal event that was videotaped. First Wendy squirted salt water at her, drenching her nice suit. Then, as Warburton tried to show how octopuses use the T-maze, Wendy scurried to the bottom of the tank and hid in the sand. Warburton says the whole debacle occurred because the octopus realized in advance what was going to happen. “Wendy,” she said, “just didn’t feel like being caught in the net.”
Data from Warburton’s experiments showed that the California two-spots quickly learned which side of a T-maze offered a terra-cotta pot to hide in. But Warburton learned far more than her experiments revealed. “Science,” she says, “can only say so much. I know they watched me. I know they sometimes followed me. But they are so different from anything we normally study. How do you prove the intelligence of someone so different?”
MEASURING THE MINDS OF OTHER creatures is a perplexing problem. One yardstick scientists use is brain size, since humans have big brains. But size doesn’t always match smarts. As is well known in electronics, anything can be miniaturized. Small brain size was the evidence once used to argue that birds were stupid — before some birds were proven intelligent enough to compose music, invent dance steps, ask questions, and do math.
Octopuses have the largest brains of any invertebrate. Athena’s is the size of a walnut — as big as the brain of the famous African gray parrot, Alex, who learned to use more than one hundred spoken words meaningfully. That’s proportionally bigger than the brains of most of the largest dinosaurs.
Another measure of intelligence: you can count neurons. The common octopus has about 130 million of them in its brain. A human has 100 billion. But this is where things get weird. Three-fifths of an octopus’s neurons are not in the brain; they’re in its arms.
“It is as if each arm has a mind of its own,” says Peter Godfrey-Smith, a diver, professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and an admirer of octopuses. For example, researchers who cut off an octopus’s arm (which the octopus can regrow) discovered that not only does the arm crawl away on its own, but if the arm meets a food item, it seizes it — and tries to pass it to where the mouth would be if the arm were still connected to its body.
“Meeting an octopus,” writes Godfrey-Smith, “is like meeting an intelligent alien.” Their intelligence sometimes even involves changing colors and shapes. One video online shows a mimic octopus alternately morphing into a flatfish, several sea snakes, and a lionfish by changing color, altering the texture of its skin, and shifting the position of its body. Another video shows an octopus materializing from a clump of algae. Its skin exactly matches the algae from which it seems to bloom — until it swims away.
For its color palette, the octopus uses three layers of three different types of cells near the skin’s surface. The deepest layer passively reflects background light. The topmost may contain the colors yellow, red, brown, and black. The middle layer shows an array of glittering blues, greens, and golds. But how does an octopus decide what animal to mimic, what colors to turn? Scientists have no idea, especially given that octopuses are likely colorblind.
But new evidence suggests a breathtaking possibility. Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and University of Washington researchers found that the skin of the cuttlefish Sepia officinalis, a color-changing cousin of octopuses, contains gene sequences usually expressed only in the light-sensing retina of the eye. In other words, cephalopods — octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid — may be able to see with their skin.
The American philosopher Thomas Nagel once wrote a famous paper titled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Bats can see with sound. Like dolphins, they can locate their prey using echoes. Nagel concluded it was impossible to know what it’s like to be a bat. And a bat is a fellow mammal like us — not someone who tastes with its suckers, sees with its skin, and whose severed arms can wander about, each with a mind of its own. Nevertheless, there are researchers still working diligently to understand what it’s like to be an octopus.
JENNIFER MATHER SPENT MOST of her time in Bermuda floating facedown on the surface of the water at the edge of the sea. Breathing through a snorkel, she was watching Octopus vulgaris — the common octopus. Although indeed common (they are found in tropical and temperate waters worldwide), at the time of her study in the mid-1980s, “nobody knew what they were doing.”
In a relay with other students from six-thirty in the morning till six-thirty at night, Mather worked to find out. Sometimes she’d see an octopus hunting. A hunting expedition could take five minutes or three hours. The octopus would capture something, inject it with venom, and carry it home to eat. “Home,” Mather found, is where octopuses spend most of their time. A home, or den, which an octopus may occupy only a few days before switching to a new one, is a place where the shell-less octopus can safely hide: a hole in a rock, a discarded shell, or a cubbyhole in a sunken ship. One species, the Pacific red octopus, particularly likes to den in stubby, brown, glass beer bottles.
One octopus Mather was watching had just returned home and was cleaning the front of the den with its arms. Then, suddenly, it left the den, crawled a meter away, picked up one particular rock and placed the rock in front of the den. Two minutes later, the octopus ventured forth to select a second rock. Then it chose a third. Attaching suckers to all the rocks, the octopus carried the load home, slid through the den opening, and carefully arranged the three objects in front. Then it went to sleep. What the octopus was thinking seemed obvious: “Three rocks are enough. Good night!”
The scene has stayed with Mather. The octopus “must have had some concept,” she said, “of what it wanted to make itself feel safe enough to go to sleep.” And the octopus knew how to get what it wanted: by employing foresight, planning — and perhaps even tool use. Mather is the lead author of Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate, which includes observations of octopuses who dismantle Lego sets and open screw-top jars. Coauthor Roland Anderson reports that octopuses even learned to open the childproof caps on Extra Strength Tylenol pill bottles — a feat that eludes many humans with university degrees.
In another experiment, Anderson gave octopuses plastic pill bottles painted different shades and with different textures to see which evoked more interest. Usually each octopus would grasp a bottle to see if it were edible and then cast it off. But to his astonishment, Anderson saw one of the octopuses doing something striking: she was blowing carefully modulated jets of water from her funnel to send the bottle to the other end of her aquarium, where the water flow sent it back to her. She repeated the action twenty times. By the eighteenth time, Anderson was already on the phone with Mather with the news: “She’s bouncing the ball!”
This octopus wasn’t the only one to use the bottle as a toy. Another octopus in the study also shot water at the bottle, sending it back and forth across the water’s surface, rather than circling the tank. Anderson’s observations were reported in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. “This fit all the criteria for play behavior,” said Anderson. “Only intelligent animals play — animals like crows and chimps, dogs and humans.”
Aquarists who care for octopuses feel that not only can these animals play with toys, but they may need to play with toys. An Octopus Enrichment Handbook has been developed by Cincinnati’s Newport Aquarium, with ideas of how to keep these creatures entertained. One suggestion is to hide food inside Mr. Potato Head and let your octopus dismantle it. At the Seattle Aquarium, giant Pacific octopuses play with a baseball-sized plastic ball that can be screwed together by twisting the two halves. Sometimes the mollusks screw the halves back together after eating the prey inside.
At the New England Aquarium, it took an engineer who worked on the design of cubic zirconium to devise a puzzle worthy of a brain like Athena’s. Wilson Menashi, who began volunteering at the aquarium weekly after retiring from the Arthur D. Little Corporation sixteen years ago, devised a series of three Plexiglas cubes, each with a different latch. The smallest cube has a sliding latch that twists to lock down, like the bolt on a horse stall. Aquarist Bill Murphy puts a crab inside the clear cube and leaves the lid open. Later he lets the octopus lift open the lid. Finally he locks the lid, and invariably the octopus figures out how to open it.
Next he locks the first cube within a second one. The new latch slides counterclockwise to catch on a bracket. The third box is the largest, with two different locks: a bolt that slides into position to lock down, and a second one like a lever arm, sealing the lid much like the top of an old-fashioned glass canning jar.
All the octopuses Murphy has known learned fast. They typically master a box within two or three once-a-week tries. “Once they ‘get it,'” he says, “they can open it very fast” — within three or four minutes. But each may use a different strategy.
George, a calm octopus, opened the boxes methodically. The impetuous Gwenevere squeezed the second-largest box so hard she broke it, leaving a hole two inches wide. Truman, Murphy said, was “an opportunist.” One day, inside the smaller of the two boxes, Murphy put two crabs, who started to fight. Truman was too excited to bother with locks. He poured his seven-foot-long body through the two-inch crack Gwenevere had made, and visitors looked into his exhibit to find the giant octopus squeezed, suckers flattened, into the tiny space between the walls of the fourteen-cubic-inch box outside and the six-cubic-inch one inside it. Truman stayed inside half an hour. He never opened the inner box — probably he was too cramped.
Three weeks after I had first met Athena, I returned to the aquarium to meet the man who had designed the cubes. Menashi, a quiet grandfather with a dark moustache, volunteers every Tuesday. “He has a real way with octopuses,” Dowd and Murphy told me. I was eager to see how Athena behaved with him.
Murphy opened the lid of her tank, and Athena rose to the surface eagerly. A bucket with a handful of fish sat nearby. Did she rise so eagerly sensing the food? Or was it the sight of her friend that attracted her? “She knows me,” Menashi answered softly.
Anderson’s experiments with giant Pacific octopuses in Seattle prove Menashi is right. The study exposed eight octopuses to two unfamiliar humans, dressed identically in blue aquarium shirts. One person consistently fed a particular octopus, and another always touched it with a bristly stick. Within a week, at first sight of the people, most octopuses moved toward the feeders and away from the irritators, at whom they occasionally aimed their water-shooting funnels.
Upon seeing Menashi, Athena reached up gently and grasped his hands and arms. She flipped upside down, and he placed a capelin in some of the suckers near her mouth, at the center of her arms. The fish vanished. After she had eaten, Athena floated in the tank upside down, like a puppy asking for a belly rub. Her arms twisted lazily. I took one in my hand to feel the suckers — did that arm know it had hold of a different person than the other arms did? Her grip felt calm, relaxed. With me, earlier, she seemed playful, exploratory, excited. The way she held Menashi with her suckers seemed to me like the way a long-married couple holds hands at the movies.
I leaned over the tank to look again into her eyes, and she bobbed up to return my gaze. “She has eyelids like a person does,” Menashi said. He gently slid his hand near one of her eyes, causing her to slowly wink.
BIOLOGISTS HAVE LONG NOTED the similarities between the eyes of an octopus and the eyes of a human. Canadian zoologist N. J. Berrill called it “the single most startling feature of the whole animal kingdom” that these organs are nearly identical: both animals’ eyes have transparent corneas, regulate light with iris diaphragms, and focus lenses with a ring of muscle.
Scientists are currently debating whether we and octopuses evolved eyes separately, or whether a common ancestor had the makings of the eye. But intelligence is another matter. “The same thing that got them their smarts isn’t the same thing that got us our smarts,” says Mather, “because our two ancestors didn’t have any smarts.” Half a billion years ago, the brainiest thing on the planet had only a few neurons. Octopus and human intelligence evolved independently.
“Octopuses,” writes philosopher Godfrey-Smith, “are a separate experiment in the evolution of the mind.” And that, he feels, is what makes the study of the octopus mind so philosophically interesting.
The octopus mind and the human mind probably evolved for different reasons. Humans — like other vertebrates whose intelligence we recognize (parrots, elephants, and whales) — are long-lived, social beings. Most scientists agree that an important event that drove the flowering of our intelligence was when our ancestors began to live in social groups. Decoding and developing the many subtle relationships among our fellows, and keeping track of these changing relationships over the course of the many decades of a typical human lifespan, was surely a major force shaping our minds.
But octopuses are neither long-lived nor social. Athena, to my sorrow, may live only a few more months — the natural lifespan of a giant Pacific octopus is only three years. If the aquarium added another octopus to her tank, one might eat the other. Except to mate, most octopuses have little to do with others of their kind.
So why is the octopus so intelligent? What is its mind for? Mather thinks she has the answer. She believes the event driving the octopus toward intelligence was the loss of the ancestral shell. Losing the shell freed the octopus for mobility. Now they didn’t need to wait for food to find them; they could hunt like tigers. And while most octopuses love crab best, they hunt and eat dozens of other species — each of which demands a different hunting strategy. Each animal you hunt may demand a different skill set: Will you camouflage yourself for a stalk-and-ambush attack? Shoot through the sea for a fast chase? Or crawl out of the water to capture escaping prey?
Losing the protective shell was a trade-off. Just about anything big enough to eat an octopus will do so. Each species of predator also demands a different evasion strategy — from flashing warning coloration if your attacker is vulnerable to venom, to changing color and shape to camouflage, to fortifying the door to your home with rocks.
Such intelligence is not always evident in the laboratory. “In the lab, you give the animals this situation, and they react,” points out Mather. But in the wild, “the octopus is actively discovering his environment, not waiting for it to hit him. The animal makes the decision to go out and get information, figures out how to get the information, gathers it, uses it, stores it. This has a great deal to do with consciousness.”
So what does it feel like to be an octopus? Philosopher Godfrey-Smith has given this a great deal of thought, especially when he meets octopuses and their relatives, giant cuttlefish, on dives in his native Australia. “They come forward and look at you. They reach out to touch you with their arms,” he said. “It’s remarkable how little is known about them . . . but I could see it turning out that we have to change the way we think of the nature of the mind itself to take into account minds with less of a centralized self.”
“I think consciousness comes in different flavors,” agrees Mather. “Some may have consciousness in a way we may not be able to imagine.”
IN MAY, I VISITED Athena a third time. I wanted to see if she recognized me. But how could I tell? Scott Dowd opened the top of her tank for me. Athena had been in a back corner but floated immediately to the top, arms outstretched, upside down.
This time I offered her only one arm. I had injured a knee and, feeling wobbly, used my right hand to steady me while I stood on the stool to lean over the tank. Athena in turn gripped me with only one of her arms, and very few of her suckers. Her hold on me was remarkably gentle.
I was struck by this, since Murphy and others had first described Athena’s personality to me as “feisty.” “They earn their names,” Murphy had told me. Athena is named for the Greek goddess of wisdom, war, and strategy. She is not usually a laid-back octopus, like George had been. “Athena could pull you into the tank,” Murphy had warned. “She’s curious about what you are.”
Was she less curious now? Did she remember me? I was disappointed that she did not bob her head up to look at me. But perhaps she didn’t need to. She may have known from the taste of my skin who I was. But why was this feisty octopus hanging in front of me in the water, upside down?
Then I thought I might know what she wanted from me. She was begging. Dowd asked around and learned that Athena hadn’t eaten in a couple of days, then allowed me the thrilling privilege of handing her a capelin.
Perhaps I had understood something basic about what it felt like to be Athena at that moment: she was hungry. I handed a fish to one of her larger suckers, and she began to move it toward her mouth. But soon she brought more arms to the task, and covered the fish with many suckers — as if she were licking her fingers, savoring the meal.
A WEEK AFTER I LAST VISITED ATHENA, I was shocked to receive this e-mail from Scott Dowd: “Sorry to write with some sad news. Athena appears to be in her final days, or even hours. She will live on, though, through your conveyance.” Later that same day, Dowd wrote to tell me that she had died. To my surprise, I found myself in tears.
Why such sorrow? I had understood from the start that octopuses don’t live very long. I also knew that while Athena did seem to recognize me, I was not by any means her special friend. But she was very significant to me, both as an individual and as a representative from her octopodan world. She had given me a great gift: a deeper understanding of what it means to think, to feel, and to know. I was eager to meet more of her kind.
And so, it was with some excitement that I read this e-mail from Dowd a few weeks later: “There is a young pup octopus headed to Boston from the Pacific Northwest. Come shake hands (x8) when you can.” O
This article, along with other landmark Orion essays about our connection to the animal world, are collected in a new anthology, Animals & People. Order your copy here. The article also became the basis for the author’s 2015 book, The Soul of an Octopus.
This is an enchanting and soothing, though sadly touching, story.
There’s no experience in human life that compares to sharing acquaintance and even affection with another creature–even when they’re of another species.
I’ve always been fascinated by octopi; where in Seattle can you volunteer to do this?
Brilliant article. I’ve encountered octopii many times whilst snorkelling or diving and was convinced of their intelligence just by watching their behaviour. I found a pair in shallow water who seemed as curious about me as I was of them, reaching for my tentative hand. Another hiding in a crevice went a ghostly white when I approached and loooked very frightened. Another seemed to show off, clambering and flipping around the top of a rock while me and my fellow snorkellers gather round to watch. It’s sad to learn they don’t live very long.
Ever-Fascinated – You can volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium – As a new volunteer you will generally be monitoring the touching pool (where visitors can touch anemones, seastars, &etc;) and helping people out with their questions, but during your training you get to learn all about the Octopuses (A plural term which is indeed correct, though Octopi can be used instead) and probably you’ll get to feed them sometimes, my gf did when she volunteered.
What a magnificent article. I wonder what it’s like to see and feel and taste with your arms. And, the part about different flavors of consciousness— what a fascinating quote. Thank you so much for writing this article. I will respect octopuses from now on.
There are three plural forms of octopus: octopuses [ËˆÉ’ktÉ™pÉ™sÉªz], octopi [ËˆÉ’ktÉ™paÉª], and octopodes [ËŒÉ’kËˆtÉ™ÊŠpÉ™diËz]. Currently, octopuses is the most common form in the UK as well as the US; octopodes is rare, and octopi is often objectionable.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists octopuses, octopi and octopodes (in that order); it labels octopodes “rare”, and notes that octopi derives from the mistaken assumption that octÅpÅ«s is a second declension Latin noun, which it is not. Rather, it is (Latinized) Ancient Greek, from oktá¹“pous (á½€ÎºÏ„ÏŽÏ€Î¿Ï…Ï‚), gender masculine, whose plural is oktá¹“podes (á½€ÎºÏ„ÏŽÏ€Î¿Î´ÎµÏ‚). If the word were native to Latin, it would be octÅpÄ“s (‘eight-foot’) and the plural octÅpedes, analogous to centipedes and mÄ«llipedes, as the plural form of pÄ“s (‘foot’) is pedes. In modern Greek, it is called khtapÃ³di (Ï‡Ï„Î±Ï€ÏŒÎ´Î¹), gender neuter, with plural form khtapÃ³dia (Ï‡Ï„Î±Ï€ÏŒÎ´Î¹Î±).
Chambers 21st Century Dictionary and the Compact Oxford Dictionary list only octopuses, although the latter notes that octopodes is “still occasionally used”; the British National Corpus has 29 instances of octopuses, 11 of octopi and 4 of octopodes. Merriam-Webster 11th Collegiate Dictionary lists octopuses and octopi, in that order; Webster’s New World College Dictionary lists octopuses, octopi and octopodes (in that order).
Fowler’s Modern English Usage states that “the only acceptable plural in English is octopuses,” and that octopi is misconceived and octopodes pedantic.
The term octopod (plural octopods or octopodes) is taken from the taxonomic order Octopoda but has no classical equivalent. The collective form octopus is usually reserved for animals consumed for food.
Beautifully written article. Such an incredible creature. Anyone know why their lifespan is so short?
I have had the good fortune to see camouflaged octopus whilst scuba diving a few times (and probably swam part many more without knowing).
Beautifully written article about a beautiful underwater creature. For all my 80 years I have been terrified of ‘things’ in the water, but I’ve loved to watch film of octopuses going their busy ways. Once I visited Monterey, and was thrilled to bits seeing an octopus change colour.
And to Mr Barth may I say how much I enjoyed your most informative comment – Mr Fowler holds a prime spot on my bookshelf. I shall never use the word ‘octopi’ again, even in fun.
Now, will my husband indulge me at Christmas with a gift of the Octopus book? I hope so.
Have had many encounters with octopuses, and one memorable day found a mature octopus vulgaris wallowing in the shallows on a sandbank. Picked him up and released him a few times, but he (or she) didn’t seem to want to swim away, so spent much of the day transporting him around on my surfski as he made himself comfortable near the foot pedal. Released him in 0.5m near the estuary mouth and went for a 20 minute walk. He was still there when I returned, so picked him up again and took him home. Have always enjoyed eating octopus, and – pickled – he was no exception. I felt no guilt as the seagulls would have eaten him anyway – he must have been on his last legs, perhaps that was why he was on the sandbank. They are fascinating creatures – interesting to learn that no-one seems to have been successful farming them. Thanks for the interesting insights into their behaviour.
On a science show on television, I once saw an octopus in a tank, displaying an apparently artistic patter, sort of like fleurs-de-lis.
Am I just being imaginative, or is there evidence of octopuses making “art” like this?
Thank you so much for this story. I’ve always been fascinated by octopuses and their alien beauty and intelligence. Beautiful story. You made me fall in love with that gorgeous creature. Then you made me tear up AND smile at the end. Perfect.
This was a fascinating, enchanting article. I remember the octopus we caught for the aquarium in marine biology class my senior year in high school – she laid a clutch of eggs in a concrete block, and she defended it with a rock from a sea cucumber that had wandered too close – our teacher practically bounced off the walls yelling, “She’s using a tool!” We fed her shark meat carved off a little blue we had in the freezer, and I loved the delicate way she would take pieces from my fingers.
Thanks again for the article!
What a wonderful article. I had no idea octopuses were such fascinating creatures! Thank you for publishing this.
This is one of the most fascinating and beautifully written nature articles I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.
that was lovely.
ill be your friend if your still sad 🙂
I am ashamed to admit that I hadn’t given octopuses much more than a shuddering thought before reading this article. Kudos to the author for a wonderfully written article, on several levels. This was a rare treat.
Absolutely brilliant article. Thank you so much.
Oh my gosh, I have chill bumps reading your emotional and wonder-filled words. Thank you so very much for sharing that most impressive tactile experience.
Indeed, we are all one at some point.
Continued success in all your journeys and writings regarding them.
You have definitely broadened my horizons.
What a lovely story. I was acquainted with Athena, though only on the other side of the glass. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that octopi freak me out, but in a way that makes me curious about their nature, rather than abhorrent towards them.
Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful story. Greetings from Sweden.
BTW, I recognize yr masthead illustration. It’s in my copy of “Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates”.
Awesome article… Picked up a bit of new knowledge and reminded me of why I do not eat calamari or any other type of cephalopod for that matter!
I believe octopuses don’t live very long because they tend to burn up their oxygen quickly. If you were to wrestle with one (while you could breathe freely) they will get tired well before you would. I read once that some people witnessed an octopus crawl out of the water and into a campfire. One of the people watching commented that it must not be smart. Another person with them said that it was a sign of intelligence because it was curious about something that it had no frame of reference to properly understand because there isn’t fire underwater…
Either way, great article.
This article is beautiful, and it makes me wish I had an octopus for a friend. But I can’t help wishing the research could be done without holding the animals against their will, in unnatural environments. For animals as smart as these guys, it seems so cruel.
â€œThe animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.â€ – Alice Walker
Perhaps another reason for cephalopod intelligence is their blue blood, which is a poor carrier of oxygen. Cephalopods are strong, but they tire quickly.
When hunting, a blue-blooded animal must attack quickly and decisively. When escaping, it must rely confusing its attackers.
Both require intelligence. In fact, successfully confusing its attackers may require understanding how they think. Cephalopods may have a basic theory of the mind.
Sadly I’ve never personally interacted with an octopus but from what I’ve read and little I’ve seen on video these are are some truly amazing creatures. Fascinating read. Is it true that these animals have a form of REM sleep?
I enjoyed this thoughtful and well-written article. However, I was surprised by the section about the octopus eye. Their eyes are an ingrowth of their skin whereas human eyes are an outgrowth of the brain. The distinction seems quite important to me. Furthermore, although they may be colour-blind they can perceive the polarity of light, which as I understand, humans cannot. All octopuses tested to date distinguish between HD and non-HD television displays but many humans cannot detect any difference between such displays.
Wow. I stumbled up on your article and found myself mesmerized by it. I emotionally went right back to a time when I swam in Florida and a manatee came to join me. Whenever anyone else approached, she would disappear. I spent an hour with her and it changed my life. Turns out the guides in the area had not seen her for over 2 years and thought she had been killed. I informed them that she was lactating. (When I accidentally tickled her, milk would squirt out.) Upon returning to the boat, she blocked my path 3 times to stop me from going. By the 3rd time, I realized it’s nearly impossible to breathe with a snorkel mask and cry at the same time. I felt honored and blessed that she chose to share her time and trust with me.
Perhaps, someday, I’ll tell my story in full. I’m sure you’d be sobbing in the end as well.
Thank you for bring that memory to full consciousness again through your experience with Athena.
Thank you for your thoughtful, beautifully expressed article – and for increasing my wonder with the world.
Thank you so much for this fascinating article. It truly made my afternoon, as it did for many other readers, as well. I have always been fascinated by octopodes, and this piece tickled my fancy in all the right places – times eight.
A touching read, thankyou for sharing your octopus connection memoire. I’m a cephalopod fan too, and have enjoyed many wonderful swims with Giant Australian Cuttlefish in the wild. They can be every bit as curious and inquisitive as a dog, and a little one followed me around once for some time. Unfortunately, the world’s largest known breeding ground for cephalopods in South Australia is at risk from industrial development proposals. Please visit our website, sign our petition and inform others of the plight of the Giant Australian Cuttlefish… they really need your help!
I wonder if, instead of not taking a liking to the young female volunteer, Truman the octopus instead liked her a whole lot? (If you catch my drift…)
Later in the piece, Truman is described as being “opportunistic;” and Montgomery says that the octopuses also squirt water to be playful. Just an idea.
Wonderful article. I am envious. It reminds me of my experience with the dolphins at Monkey Mia, north of Perth, Australia. They swim at your feet, rool over a bit and look at you.
I believe that there is just one consciousness, that of our higher self, Gaia. We are the planet. We are in a sense being lived rather than living “on” a planet.
Each material object expresses Gaia’s consciousness to the extent of its development. Gaia loves and cares for all parts of herself.
In the early 70’s, we used to go to a small aquarium in Newport Oregon. They had an octopus tank right near the entrance and would take the top off at quiet times. Some of the octopuses they got were very shy and wouldn’t visit, but I remember one that would come and greet people, reaching out to touch, taste?, all the visitors.
If they are so smart and can think so intelligently shouldn’t be not capture them and lock them in cages so we can just stare and them and play with them for our amusement. Their capacity for intelligence and emotion demands their freedom. An aquarium can in no way provide a meaningful and fulfilling life as being free in the ocean. So let this article be a call to arms to stop imprisoning them.
Enchanting, beautiful article. I was gripped. Next stop, New England Aquarium….
I stopped eating Octopi at sushi restaurants years ago after watching them open jars to get at shrimp and leaving their tanks to go after food, then returning.
I know some people that cannot do that.
It’s hard to convey the way I felt when I first saw a small octopus in the wild (hiding in a crevice below a dock in the Florida Keys). My whole heart responded to it with a tenderness which we reserve for the completely harmless, and the completely innocent. The recognition of another mind, soul and personality was instantaneous. I’ve never felt such a deep and immediate connection to any other creature. It was amazing, unworldly.
Such an interesting article. I never knew much about octopi or had much experience with them outside of a couple of aquarium visits I’ve made in the past–although I’m very interested in marine life and find fish and other creatures of the sea to be very soothing to watch.
I have always found octopi to be a bit creepy but this article honestly made me want to dip my hand into Athena’s tank and let her taste and feel my arm. I wonder if she would have liked me.
I am particularly interested in consciousness in general and in the minds of other animals so that aspect of the article I found especially enthralling. All around a great read.
Fabulous article. Why is it we are surprised that other creatures think? Ours is only one consciousness amongst many. But articles like this are beautiful reminders of the majesty and mystery of life.
Thanks for a wonderful reminder of one of my best diving experiences. Whilst using up the last of my tank at very shallow depth in warm water at Tulamben, Bali, we watched two octopuses in their mating dance. It lasted at least ten minutes and I wish I’d had a video camera.
Thank you, Sky, for reminding us that we are all part of something greater than its’ transitory and ephemeral parts. Would that more human beings on our wonderful spaceship could remember that too.
Thanks to Sky for reminding us that we are all part of an amazing, intricate and astounding whole that transcends our frail, temporary and ephemeral selves. I certainly will never eat any octopus again.
From the first time that I fearfully started snorkelling, all I have wanted to see was an octopus. Your article makes me want to see one up close even more. Unfortunately, where I come from – India – there aren’t many opportunities to check out such marine life. So your excellent and well-written article sated some of the curiosity 🙂
From tiny little Herbie who would squirt you if you didn’t come into his tank to play with him, to the cantaloupe-sized denizen of the Monterey Bay Aquarium who seemed to share my frustration at the glass wall separating us, I find octopuses fascinating.
After reading this article, I have a burning desire to figure out a way to use computers and videos to find a way to *communicate.*
Thank you for an intriguing story. I had a similar experience staring into the pupils of a monkey once, trying to gauge its intelligence. Then, I realized it was staring into mine, for perhaps the same reason. My hair stood on end. The more we learn the more ordinary we we seem, in many ways. But story-telling is the difference, and this is very well told.
Folks who loved this story and want to learn more about intelligent animals can hear the author share her experiences with the aquarium’s newest octopus, Octavia, next week during Orion’s monthly live web event:
It’s free but you have to register. Sy will also talk about other smart animals she’s known and written about and be joined by two other experts. More info at the link above.
Hope you can join us,
A wonderful article. I teared up a the end. Octopi rule!
Amazing article. I live on the shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and have been fascinated by deep sea creatures since I moved here. I try to return sea mammals to the sea when they get washed up ashore.
One doesn’t have to be a scientist to discern intelligence. Often, in fact, it is exactly that strict methodology and need to quantify all things that severely limits what science can tell us. Like the author’s experience, I, too, will never forget my first visit to the Monterey Bay aquarium and looking into the eye of an octopus. Every other “exhibit” felt exactly like that – fish swimming circles, shrimp darting about, brightly lit choral made more so by artificial lighting.
But when I turned the corner and looked into that tank and saw those eyes looking back at me… well…the only doubt of its intelligence was the slightly disconcerting experience as to who was really looking at who and which side of the glass I was really on.
I participated in the online conference this evening and took away a whole new idea of the animal kingdom. There is so much left to discover, so we need to preserve as many species as we can…If for no other reason than to not miss out on more miracles of nature!
Every animal plays. Very few humans spend enough time with animals to understand why, when and how play occurs for others. Insects play, or do the same movements and interactions animals do when playing.
Why do we insist that this is not possible, and seem amazed when anything besides humans play, or think or plan? Our understanding is very limited, which is not a good place from which to make absolute judgments.
Keith Nelson here. I joined the nov 15 web event and offered up a question. The discussion was fascinating–Brava and Bravo !
I am a Psychologist interested in children’s development, including their relations to nature.
My eBook at Amazon.com, Children, Pelicans, Planets: Bobcat Magic has some stories of adult and child encounters with creatures that resonate with Sy’s work. Any chance that Orion (or someone making comments on Deep Intellect) might be interested in publishing a couple of pages, with a photo or two, that could easily be extracted from the book ?
BRIEF DESCRIPTION FOLLOWS
If you go to Amazon.com you have a chance to read a brand new book about Nature and Children. It is called, Children, Pelicans, Planets: Bobcat Magic.
Surprise, delight, and amazement may await you as a reader of these chapters. In addition it is anticipated that in multiple ways these stories of Nature exploration will create some restlessness in many readers, some itches toward actions that increase their own contacts with nature and the quantity and quality of their children’s participation with nature. Of course, you and different readers will enter the book with different frames of experience and will carry from it varied kinds and degrees of new awareness. Each of you will absorb the many reflections offered in these excursions into nature and will go beyond them to their own. Among the likely impacts of Children, Pelicans, and Planets: Bobcat Magic on readers and in turn on their friends and children are these–
â€¢ Setting aside more time to enter nature
â€¢ Heightened attention to details in a wide range of contexts
â€¢ New awareness of the potential for the seemingly familiar to surprise, reorient, and touch us
â€¢ Feeling the threads of how nurturing the planet resonates with nurturing our children
As a veterinarian I find my daily interactions w/pets most enjoyable. After reading this article is strikes me as a shame that octopi don’t come in for vaccinations. I’m confident that there are several of them I would like to meet. Very good article.
Great, great article. As a senior citizen (77), I occasionally ponder my own demise and wonder if consciousness continues beyond our death. I’ve concluded, probably not. But…..???
To realize that other creatures also possess one of nature’s most wondrous gifts is awesome!
fascinating article!. At the end of the article when I read about Athena’s death .as author felt ,something struck in my heart too.Hope one day all humans will gain back humanity and start respecting and loving every creatures in this world.
fully conscious…. great article….they are aliens among us
Hi, I’m about sixteen years old and came across your article from a Yahoo News video link.
I absolutely adore your writing style. And octopuses are my new favorite mollusk! Thanks for this article.
Also appreciated the comment about the plural of octopus.
Posted by Orion on behalf of Carolyn,
I have been reading about how intelligent the occupus is but I never dreamed to actually see it walk out of water to go after food. The article is amazing
However I saw the link last nit and watched this incredible animal do this act , but now I can;t find the link
If anyone can direct me to the link by C/P it for me , it would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you Carolyn
Great article! I volunteer at the South Carolina aquarium and have cared for many octopuses, and they do all have their own personalities. I had one that was extremely feisty, and it was amazing how much more exciting that display was while he was in it. He always swam right up to the top of his tank, beak up, ready to eat whenever I was around his tank doing anything. I have never had another do that while I’ve been there. But, boy, the flounder and oyster toadfish in the tank with him weren’t fans of his! He was a bit of a bully, even though smaller than all of them. He’s no longer with us, unfortunately. It’s a shame they don’t live for longer. Of the creatures I care for, the octopus is one of my favorites because they are so interesting and beautiful. I have definitely developed a new appreciation/fascination for them since working there!
awww this article is really moving, i found myself reading the whole article already, even i was not intersted at first. with what i”ve read, i think i’m already in love with these creatures and really convinced that we should love and respect other living things 🙂 THnx for posting …
Thank you for effectively ruining an old manâ€™s love of Grilled Octopus. Your observation and prose makes consuming our intelligent eight legged aquatic counterpart somehow cannibalistic. At the risk of sounding trite, it truly is thought provoking thesis.
How does one receive notification of your future articles? However, I request one favor; please do not write an essay sympathetic to Italian Sausage. Thank you.
John, the Orion e-newsletter is what you’re looking for. It’s our weekly offering of updates on what’s new in the magazine and at the website. Sign up is quick, free, and easy, here:
What a remarkable and interesting article. Years ago, I was a neurobiologist working with sea slugs. There were octopii in the lab as well. It became quite clear to me that there was an exceptional intelligence behind the eyes that regarded me when I arrived each day. Thanks for a good read.
So much love for octopus huh XD. They are such wonderful creature and intelligent too. I was so amazed when an octopus predicted who will be the champion on the previous soccer world cup.
Awesome article. This is the most entertaining, interesting, and philosophical things I’ve read in a while.
When my cousin was working at Woods Hole, they kept “losing” fish from one of their tanks. They put in a security camera, and found that at night after everyone left, their one octopus would crawl out of its tank, across the floor, up onto the next table, get a night-time snack from the fish tank, then go back “home.” !
I read once that some people witnessed an octopus crawl out of the water and into a campfire.
Most enlightening indeed.more research is in the making we trust.
Personally iwas untried by such a thorough observational study..
Follow-up articles would be received with great anticipation.
DR. EHP, @ ROW, USA. –
darnit, this article made me cry. Athena might have actually considered you a friend.
A very well done, respectful and touching article. As a Seattle-area diver, I’ve been fortunate enough to had numerous encounters with Octopuses, including volunteer work with the Seattle Aquarium. Like the author, I’ve been transfixed by their curiosity, resourcefulness and intelligence. Two added interesting facts; their blood isn’t based on iron, but copper (why it’s colored blue)…and they have three hearts. The Anderson book cited is a particularly well done reference and good read.
Fantastic and fascinating article…
I love Octopi, cuttle fishes, etc. In the aquariums I have visited in the past, (especially the one in Doha, Qatar, where I spent a summer fascinated by a very large octopus that was so very beautiful and smart), I could spend hours just gazing at them. They are so graceful! As I live in Tucson, there are no aquariums here of note, so I miss seeing them. I can almost imagine being one…sigh.
This was a wonderful article that reflected so much insight and compassion – so much respect for Athena and her life. Many years ago I saw a National Geographic special in which small octopi were kept in training tanks and taught to respond to push buttons for food, through Pavlovian trials. When one octopus in particular was let back out to sea, it virtually hugged its trainer, and hesitated for a moment or two, before swimming off. It had clearly made an attachment that could be understood as emotional. I have never forgotten that show — and have never been able to eat octopus after that.
But part of what I found so heart rending about this story is that she was kept in captivity – in solitary confinement. Why was she hungry during the last visit — why was she made to beg? That National Geographic special from years ago, as well as this article has even further convinced me that these animals belong in the wild, in their natural habitat — and we have no right for any reason, unless they are injured, to bring them into captivity — whether it is for science or especially for a zoo. It is our duty to rehabilitate and to return them to their home in the wild. They are clearly sentient beings and they deserve that.
That said — I certainly appreciated reading this piece — and only hope that the young pup who succeeded Athena will have a chance to reunite at some point with her own kind.
What a wonderful article. I recently visited SeaLife Aquarium in Kansas City, MO, where I found myself face-to-face and staring straight into the eyes of an octopus. Theretofore I had never seen an octopus, nor thought much about them, but since that encounter I’ve thought incessantly about the connection I felt as the octopus and I looked into each other’s eyes. I sensed intelligence there, and I was mesmerized…disappointed when I had to break our mutual gaze to move along. I want to know more and to experience more with respect to octopuses. I’ve lost my appetite for beef since witnessing online a cow performing a compassionate rescue of a calf in a flood, and now I can’t imagine eating an octopus. There’s so much more to know about the “lesser” creatures who share the globe with us, and we need to develop a greater respect for them too. Thank for this wonderful reading.
Thank you for writing such an eloquent and eye-opening piece about octopuses. I also wanted to thank an above commenter, Krista, for pointing out a difference of opinion about Truman’s actions. I am that female volunteer at NEAq, and I know that because I was the only person that Truman ever sprayed. Truman was caught in the wild and was scared of humans, and I was the first human he allowed to hand-feed him. After that he routinely climbed all over me during feedings and always swam over quickly when I opened his tank. It’s true that octopuses form likes and dislikes, but while we never really knew what Truman was thinking, I believe it’s safe to say that he did not dislike me.
Great article! Very interesting. I had to keep reading it until the very end.
Great article. Very touching. Had to keep reading it until the very end.
Possibly the most sigificant communicative trait between species is the ability to share empathy’s and the writer of this article has selflessly achieved this.
Whilst octopodes undoubtedly receive and send emotions and information through touch sensation as we also do, I did though wonder the whole time I was reading this whether octopodes have an auditory organ or receptor ?
It’s octopi not octopfotm uses or the possessive form “an octopus”
I love this article more than almost any other and come back to it as a comfort time and time again. the rock pool near my home in wollongong, australia used to have a pet octopus. his name was kevin and we would feed him crabs. i adored him.
I wonder why they concluded the octopus that was blowing the pill bottle away from her repeatedly everytime it flowed back was playing with it. It seems just as well she was trying to get it away from her – unsuccessfully because she was imprisoned.