Tag Archives: octopus

Amusing Monday: Octopuses, the aliens we can encounter on Earth

Octopuses are among the coolest creatures on Earth. Not only are they dexterous, with an amazing ability to grasp and manipulate objects, they also seem to know what they are doing.

In tests, octopuses have proven that they can solve puzzles, and they certainly have some sort of memory. They can tell people apart, even if dressed in the same uniform. This may be surprising, especially since octopuses don’t really have a brain like that of humans and other vertebrates (animals with a backbone).

Not having a backbone — or any bones for that matter — allows octopuses to escape from places where much smaller invertebrates would get stuck. Check out the first video on this page, a popular clip taken by Chance Miller, an Alaskan fishing and tour guide for Miller’s Landing near Seward.

Chance tells his skeptical passengers that the large octopus slithering around his deck would escape out a tiny drain hole, that is if and when the creature decides to go.

No way, says one man heard on the video. “That’s like trying to get my wife in her wedding dress; it ain’t gonna happen.” But, of course, it did.

As for intelligence, philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith says it is not so much a question of which animals among all the species are smarter in an formalistic sense. It’s about which animal best uses its intelligence to solve problems that relate to survival and success in other ways. The octopus is thus worthy of attention.

In his new and highly acclaimed book “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness,” Godfrey-Smith talks about how octopuses and other cephalopods have a disbursed nervous system with neurons throughout their bodies. In some ways, a single tentacle may think for itself.

Mammals and birds have long been regarded as the smartest animals on Earth, but that may reveal a bias based on our similar patterns of thinking. After all, mammals and birds are closely related to us in an evolutionary sense, compared to all the invertebrates in the world.

Looking back in time, it is difficult to come up with a common ancestor to both humans and octopuses, Godfrey-Smith said. “It was probably an animal about the size of a leach or flatworm with neurons numbering perhaps in the thousands, but not more than that.” Check out the fascinating article in Quartz magazine by Olivia Goldhill.

This line of reasoning suggests that intelligence evolved on Earth in two very different ways. Studying the octopus could be the closest encounter that humans have with an alien creature, according to Godfrey-Smith. I may never think of an octopus quite the same way again.

Other interesting findings about octopuses are revealed in a 2009 Scientific American article, in which writer Brendan Borrell interviews Jennifer Mather, a comparative psychologist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.

The second video on this page shows an octopus solving a real-world problem of grabbing a meal by taking advantage of a human, while the third video is a 43-minute Planet Earth documentary released last summer about the intelligence and alien nature of the octopus.

I leave you at the end with a brief clip from the Cirque du Soleil performance of “Octopus’ Garden” by the Beatles.

Amusing Monday: Rare octopus has variety
of tricks up its sleeves

The surprise trick of coming up behind someone and tapping him or her on the opposite shoulder is a technique that seems to work especially well for the larger Pacific striped octopus.

This is how the octopuses often catch a shrimp for dinner, as you can see from the first video on this page. For a little more emotional drama, watch this same video with a musical soundtrack added by UC Berkeley Campus Life.

The larger Pacific striped octopus seems to be the odd one out, according to recent observations by marine biologist Roy Caldwell of the University of California at Berkeley. Findings reported this month by Caldwell and colleagues in the open-access journal “PLOS ONE” confirm strange stories told about the octopus over the past 30 years — behaviors far different from those of most octopuses.

Two years of observations of live large Pacific striped octopuses in Berkeley laboratories and elsewhere have confirmed behaviors never seen among most octopuses. Activities include unusual beak-to-beak mating, which looks like the animals are kissing; males and females shacking up together, sharing food and having sex for days at a time; and females living long beyond the time they lay their first clutch of eggs, as they continue to eat, mate and lay more eggs.

Male larger Pacific striped octopus stalks its prey. Photo: Roy Caldwell
Male larger Pacific striped octopus stalks its prey.
Photo: Roy Caldwell

The paper also discusses the possibility that these odd octopuses may live together in colonies, as observed by scuba divers, and come to recognize each other based on unique color patterns and postures.

As for tapping a shrimp on the shoulder, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Caldwell told Robert Sanders of Berkeley News, the media outlet for UC Berkeley.

“Octopuses typically pounce on their prey or poke around in holes until they find something,” he continued. “When this octopus sees a shrimp at a distance, it compresses itself and creeps up, extends an arm up and over the shrimp, touches it on the far side and either catches it or scares it into its other arms.”

In addition to Caldwell, authors reporting observations in the paper are Christine L. Huffard of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute; Arcadio Rodaniche of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute; and Caldwell, Huffard and Richard Ross, all of the California Academy of Sciences.

The larger Pacific striped octopus is perhaps the oddest of an odd group of creatures, with their shifting octopus shapes, mesmerizing eyes and uncanny intelligence, Richard Ross told Associated Press reporter Seth Borenstein.

“They’re aliens alive on our planet,” Ross said, “and it feels like they have plans.”


Two larger Pacific Striped Octopuses appear to embrace and kiss in a unique mating ritual.

Sometimes these octopuses move along by bouncing across the bottom of the ocean.

These octopuses can change their coloration along a bilateral line while twirling their arms.

Octopus protection was a compromise move

The decision to outlaw octopus hunting at seven select diving spots in Puget Sound was a compromise between those who wanted a complete closure throughout Puget Sound and those who wanted no closure at all.

Giant Pacific octopus at Pinnacle Rock, Hood Canal. Photo by Janna Nichols
Giant Pacific octopus at Pinnacle Rock, Hood Canal.
Photo by Janna Nichols

Janna Nichols, a leader in the local scuba diving community, told me that nearly all scuba divers who spoke out wanted a complete ban on killing the giant Pacific octopus in Puget Sound. But scientific arguments were presented that the octopus population was healthy and could tolerate a limited harvest.

Janna is outreach coordinator for Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). She has led many dive surveys of marine species and served on the octopus advisory committee appointed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“From what I saw in the diving community, about 99 percent were in favor of closing all of Puget Sound to harvest, and they were a little disappointed in the outcome,” she said.

Janna said she knows divers who go spear-fishing but has only heard of divers who harvest octopuses.

“They are worth more than gold,” she said. “I have lots of diver friends who are avid spear-fishermen, but they would be really mad if someone took an octopus. They are our friends, intelligent creatures.”

The ban on taking octopuses at seven recreational dive sites went into effect Monday after action by the Fish and Wildlife Commission. The new rules make viewing octopus a priority at the dive sites, said Craig Burley, manager of the Fish Management Division at Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He added:

“Puget Sound is one of the most popular dive destinations in the nation, and giant Pacific octopuses are one of its main attractions. These new areas provide additional protection for the species and a greater chance for divers to see these fascinating animals.”

The new restrictions were proposed after a diver legally killed a giant Pacific octopus at Seacrest Cove 2 in West Seattle. The incident was widely publicized, and many people expressed outrage, saying they had no idea it was legal to hunt the gentle and intelligent octopus.

More than 400 comments were received on the proposal to restrict the hunting of Octopuses in Puget Sound.

After working with the advisory committee, WDFW proposed a variety of options for greater or lesser protection of the octopus. In August, the Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a closure at the seven dive sites.

Conspicuously missing from the list are any locations in Hood Canal, which has several popular dive sites for spotting octopus. Hood Canal was bypassed for increased protection, because the entire waterway is currently closed to fishing for nearly all species except salmon. That’s because of the extreme stress that most deep-water species are experiencing as a result of low-oxygen conditions.

If conditions ever improve to the point that marine fish are allowed to be harvested, I would expect that the Fish and Wildlife Commission will examine which species need ongoing protection — and the octopus issue could come up again. Sund Rock and Octopus Hole, both south of Lilliwaup, are two popular dive spots to view octopus. Both are designated as marine conservation areas and will continue to protect all species from fishing.

A map of the seven new octopus protection areas along with existing marine protected areas in Puget Sound can be found on a WDFW website called “Diving with Octopuses.”

Seattle Aquarium CEO Robert W. Davidson issued a statement this week in support of the new octopus-protection areas:

“Protecting our native animals enriches our experience of life in the Sound. Scientists, sport fishers, divers and the public at large, we all have an interest in a rich marine world.

“The giant Pacific octopus is one of Puget Sound’s signature species. We look forward to continue working with the state, city, diving and fishing communities to conserve our marine environment and this magnificent octopus.”

For a fascinating description of an octopus, see my Amusing Monday piece published last May and titled “Diving with the yellow eye.” Check out “John dips below” from the program “Here Be Monsters.”

It became clear to me through this process of creating octopus-protection areas that many observers would like to see more marine protected areas for all species. Everyone agrees that such areas can be a benefit if the areas are selected carefully after adequate study and planning. The problem, as in many conservation issues, is a lack of money to perform the necessary background work.

I wrote about this issue in my ongoing series called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” (subscription required). Here’s an excerpt from the story on marine protected areas:

“We have these marine protected areas,” noted Jamie Glasgow of the environmental group Wild Fish Conservancy, “but there are many different objectives and sometimes no objectives at all among the 10 or 12 agencies involved.”

Glasgow said he is frustrated by the lack of action in assessing and coordinating existing MPAs and setting up new ones. The issue has not received the attention it deserves from the Puget Sound Partnership or WDFW, he said.

“The Puget Sound Partnership tends to prioritize the issues that are less contentious,” Glasgow said. “Sport-fishing groups and tribes don’t want to give up fishing in certain areas, which makes this issue contentious, so nothing gets done.”

Amusing Monday: Diving with the yellow eye

This week, I’d like to bring you a couple of engaging pieces — a podcast and a magazine article — both longer than what I usually post for “Amusing Monday.”

Both include stories about octopuses. But what I love about both of these is the human interaction. They also take me back about 35 years to a time when I was actively scuba diving all over Puget Sound.

In the podcast, the interviewer, Jeff Emptman, expresses a curiosity about scuba diving in Puget Sound, and he is rewarded with a vivid and accurate description by a janitor named John:

Jeff: “What’s that feeling like, dipping below the surface?”

John: “In Puget Sound, the first feeling is, ‘Oh my god, it’s so freakin’ cold!’”

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Amusing Monday: Student artists draw on debris

I really love this picture by Araminta “Minty” Little, a seventh grader at Fairview Junior High School in Central Kitsap. Her picture shows an octopus grasping trash that has been thrown into the ocean.


Apparently, the judges in the annual Marine Debris Art Contest also liked Minty’s picture. They named her one of 13 winners nationwide out of more than 600 students from 21 states who entered the contest, which is sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Minty’s drawing is a fine piece of work, but she also got high marks for her concept, which carries a message about the dangers of marine debris. As part of the contest, she was required to write a bit about the problem. As quoted on the Central Kitsap School District’s website, she explained:

“The picture I drew depicts a sea creature surrounded by garbage. The octopus … is wrapping its tentacles around stray trash preparing to throw it all back onto land. In the top right tentacle is a sign reading ‘S.O.S.’ in parody to … an old sailing term.”

To see all the 2012-13 winners, check out the slide show on the Marine Debris Blog.

The contest is open to students from kindergarten through eighth grade. The 13 winning entries will be used to create a calendar scheduled to be printed in a few months.

“You wouldn’t believe the talent of some of these students,” said Dianna Parker of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, which has conducted the art contest since 2010.

The next contest opens to entries in September.


Yes, we have octopuses in Sinclair Inlet

A giant Pacific octopus with 4- to 5-foot tentacles washed up dead this week at Elandan Gardens in Gorst. Diane Robinson, who owns the gardens with her husband Dan, called to tell us about it, and I went by and took a few photos.

Marine biologist Jeff Adams of Washington Sea Grant, who writes a blog for the Kitsap Sun, says there are probably plenty of places for the creatures to live in Sinclair Inlet, including rocky shores and sunken boats. Jeff wrote about octopuses in his blog Sea Life in February of 2010.

Diane Robinson with an octopus that washed up dead at Elandan Gardens near Gorst
Photo by Christopher Dunagan

Some facts about the giant Pacific octopus, taken from the blog Wild Pacific Northwest by Ivan Phillipsen and the National Geographic website:

  • The record size of a giant Pacific octopus is about 30 feet (9.1 meters) from tip to tip with a weight of more than 600 pounds (272 kilograms).
  • They live to about 4 years old, and both males and females die soon after breeding. Females usually live long enough to take care of their eggs and watch them hatch.
  • They hunt at night. living mostly on shrimp, crab and fish. Their suckers can taste and capture their prey, which is brought to a sharp beak, the only hard part on its body.
  • They can change colors to blend in with their surroundings.
  • They are highly intelligent with a brain that encircles the throat and extends down to each tentacle. In laboratory tests, they have been been able to distinguish shapes and patterns, solve mazes and twist off jar lids.
  • During sleep, they demonstrate brainwave patterns that suggest dreaming.

One of my Amusing Monday pieces focused on a video of a battle between an octopus and a shark. I later learned that the video was taken at the Seattle Aquarium, and I told the story behind the video.

Amusing Monday: Battle of the Depths

Update on share-versus-octopus battle

If that’s not enough, check out the videos I posted during Octopus Week at the Seattle Aquarium:

Amusing Monday: You’ve got to love an octopus

Amusing Monday: Battle of the depths

Note: I’m on vacation for the next 10 days, so I’m repeating an “Amusing Monday” entry from Aug. 4, 2008, which features a “National Geographic” video dramatizing a battle between a shark and an octopus.

When I first ran this item, I did not know for sure where this action took place. I later got the full story of the shark-versus-octopus battle from staff at the Seattle Aquarium. See “Amusing Monday” for Aug. 12, 2008.

As for my vacation, I’m sticking around home, so I may post a few blog entries if I get a chance.

This might not be the kind of story that triggers the normal kind of laughter.

In fact, now that I think about it, this video ought to come with a warning. “Caution: This video contains violence of the animal kind.” OK, it’s really not that bad.

I’ve been trying to figure out where this event took place. The animals involved are Northwest natives, but the video does not say which aquarium was involved. I’ve put in an inquiry to National Geographic, but they have not checked back yet.

An Internet search reveals several comments linking this event to the Seattle Aquarium, but none of them are official sites. At least one site mentions a connection with the Oregon Coast Aquarium. If anybody knows more, please let me know.

Amusing Monday: Time-warp view of ‘Fish from Hell’

If this week’s film “Fish from Hell” is any indication, Americans’ view of life in the ocean has changed considerably since 1945. (Scroll down for video player.)

I found this film in the Prelinger Archives, a large collection of old films and television commercials started in 1983 by Rick Prelinger in New York City.

It’s a longer video than I usually offer for Amusing Monday. But if you pick any point on either of the two video segments you will find something interesting, if not shocking. If you are limited on time, check out Part 2 at 2 minutes, 50 seconds, where the fear of a large octopus is truly amusing, knowing what we know about these creatures in Puget Sound. The storyline of “man against nature” seems quaint from a modern scientific perspective, but I wonder how many people still hold this world view.
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Amusing Monday: You’ve got to love an octopus

In recognition of Octopus Week at the Seattle Aquarium, I’m putting up a few videos for your entertainment and education. I’m posting this “Amusing Monday” early, so you can review the list of events at the Seattle Aquarium beginning this weekend.

First, before getting to the serious stuff, I’d like to start with an animated short film, “Oktapodi.” The film started out as a graduate school project by a team of French animators from Gobelins L’Ecole de L’Image. The production was nominated for an Academy Award during last year’s presentation and won numerous honors at film festivals.

The YouTube version here is OK, but if you want to see the film in full quality and can wait for the video to download, visit the official Oktapodi Web site and view the QuickTime version.

Back to the real world, check out this BBC video showing a diver up close with a giant Pacific octopus.

Elsewhere, the so-called mimic octopus is a fascinating creature, as shown in this video shot in Indonesia.

Finally, completing the tour, here’s a video from the Seattle Aquarium Web, which includes this sea creature as well as others.

Update on shark-versus-octopus battle

Last week’s “Amusing Monday” entry was indeed shot at the Seattle Aquarium — and there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

The announcer in the video doesn’t say where the scene was shot, so I put out a request for information. Thanks go to Susan Berta of Orca Network for putting me in touch with folks at Seattle Aquarium, which ultimately led to an interview with biologist and lead diver Jeff Christiansen, who was involved in shooting the video.

Photo courtesy of Seattle Aquarium

Before 1987, the dome exhibit often included three octopuses — the number required to almost guarantee that people would see one, Christiansen told me. The octopuses would hang out in a recessed area under the lower windows inside the tank, he said. That was before the rocky reefs were installed.

Also in the tank were a number of dogfish sharks, another native of the Puget Sound region. But not all the dogfish survived.

“If you were lucky enough, you could see it happen,” he said. “They would wait for fish to swim by, then you’d see the arms flash out and a bit of a struggle. Whatever the octopus didn’t eat was chucked out.”

Frequently, aquarium workers would arrive in the morning to see the remains right in front of the viewing windows. The middle of the dogfish carcasses were completely eaten down to the bones, but the head and tail were intact.

“It was considered bad to have dead animals sitting down there in the tank when you opened up (the exhibit) in the morning,” Christiansen said.

Divers, who normally went into the tanks in the afternoon, had to put on their gear and make a special trip into the tank, he said. Today, divers are in the tank several times a day.

Although the sharks were easy to replace, especially in those days, aquarium managers were worried about losing rare and valuable fish, he said. In fact, once an octopus was able to eat a sizable salmon before the decision was made to take the octopus out.

Anyway, about 10 years ago, Mike DuGruy of National Geographic Films was doing a feature on octopuses when he heard the story about the shark-eating creatures.

“He came to us and asked if we could recreate the situation,” Christiansen said. “Being the film-whores we are, we said ‘sure.’”

The details of the recreation are somewhat proprietary, Christiansen said. But that’s how the dramatic battle of the shark and the octopus came to be a National Geographic story.

Today, with the recent remodel of the aquarium, octopuses have their own space. With divers in the tanks several times a day, they could feed the octopuses enough so the animals wouldn’t go after fish, Christiansen said. Still no decisions have been made to put octopuses back in the big tank.