“You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat,”
October 25, 2011 1:16 PM   Subscribe

Inside the Mind of the Octopus:
"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."
In exploring the world and personality of the octopus, a journalist relates his interactions with a Giant Pacific Octopus and provides a look at the remarkable intelligence of the short lived cephalopods. [via]
posted by quin (66 comments total) 92 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great article, and thanks for linking to Orion Magazine, one of the best magazines out there, in my opinion.
posted by jhandey at 1:36 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


What a cool article. Thanks for posting it!
posted by Greg Nog at 1:36 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


What a wonderful article about a remarkable creature.
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:38 PM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Articles such as this make me wish that I didn't love, love, LOVE the taste of cephalopods, because they're also obviously one of the most interesting life-forms on this planet. Thanks for this.

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posted by not_on_display at 1:44 PM on October 25, 2011 [32 favorites]


I had no idea that octopuses had such short lifespans. Nor that they taste with their tentacles. Huh. Great read!
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:45 PM on October 25, 2011


What a tragic creature. Very intelligent, but they die when they mate.
posted by melissam at 1:46 PM on October 25, 2011


Ia ia!
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:48 PM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


the perfect pet this Christmas.
posted by ironjelly at 1:54 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've been saving this comment from a thread a long time ago, by elendil71.
posted by Xoebe at 1:54 PM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


If they lived any longer, they'd be the dominant species on this planet. Or at least under the water, until they developed the necessary technology to breathe air and devaste mammals with their 8-limbed octo-copters.
posted by fijiwriter at 1:58 PM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Lovely article. Perfect Instapaper (I am swamped with work) material.
posted by theredpen at 2:04 PM on October 25, 2011


Inside the mind of another octopus.
posted by lalochezia at 2:06 PM on October 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


This was amazing - thank you.
posted by glaucon at 2:09 PM on October 25, 2011


Great article-I will use for teaching. Thank you!
posted by effluvia at 2:09 PM on October 25, 2011


Articles such as this make me wish that I didn't love, love, LOVE the taste of cephalopods, because they're also obviously one of the most interesting life-forms on this planet.

I have a hard time understanding my fellow humans sometimes, let alone eight-limbed invertebrates beneath the sea. "Yes, they are intelligent and fascinating, but it is almost dinner time."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:09 PM on October 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


That was the most fascinating article I've read in a long time. Thanks for posting, quin.

I think I now understand why some vegetarians just can't bear to eat meat. Lambs are cute, sure, but they're also damned tasty. But next time calarami or squid is served to me, I'll probably think of Athena and push the plate away.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 2:11 PM on October 25, 2011


What a lovely article! Octopuses are definitely fascinating creatures, and now I want to get to know one!

Articles such as this make me wish that I didn't love, love, LOVE the taste of cephalopods, because they're also obviously one of the most interesting life-forms on this planet.

Ever since I learned that octopuses use tools and have the intelligence of a three year old, I can't bring myself to eat them. Every plate of calamari just makes me think of the happy squid from this Kate Beaton comic looking at me with its sad, betrayed eyes. Now I will also think of Athena, who seemed pretty friendly and adorable for a cephalopod.
posted by yasaman at 2:13 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


malibustacey9999, I won't eat octopus, but will wreak considerable damage on some tasty calamari. The reason? I seem to think that squid are the bastards of the ocean - mean, dumb, canibalistic and some claim a renewable (fish) resource that is somewhat sustainable. Octopus are the exact opposite. I'd be too afraid to eat something that, given a subtle evolutionary push, would put us in our place. A little bit of respect for them.
posted by fijiwriter at 2:15 PM on October 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


The thing is that many invertebrate taxa display intelligent behaviour, or at least behaviour that makes it very difficult NOT to anthropomorphize them. I used to work on a social spider where mothers looked after their young, and when she went out to hunt older siblings would take on the role. Not only that, mothers would look after and feed baby spiders that weren't even related to them. I'll never forget seeing a tug of war between a large female and a tiny baby spider.

Basically, animals without backbones rock.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 2:16 PM on October 25, 2011 [11 favorites]


I had no idea their life span was so short. That seems strangely tragic in an uncomfortably about-to-become-existentialist way.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:18 PM on October 25, 2011


I'm another person who can't/won't eat cephalopods. Mainly because I want to increase my chances of survival when their long lost space-faring alien counterparts return to the earth and check in on how their siblings are doing.

But it's an easy choice for me because most cephalopods taste like rubber soaked in a diluted ammonia and sea water.
posted by loquacious at 2:18 PM on October 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


Intelligence of a three year old? A three year old what?

Child?

I'm neither a marine biologist nor early childhood developmental expert, but I'm almost certain my kids had a more developed vocabulary at three than an octopus. I'm almost certain three year olds are pretty good with tools, something octopi are not. I'm pretty certain some three year olds can ride a bike, there is not a single octopus in the history of the world that can do that.

Let not over anthropomorphize these creatures.
posted by Keith Talent at 2:19 PM on October 25, 2011


Fascinating stuff. And hey, maybe their consciousness is so decentralized and strange that what seems to us like a short lifespan is actually cumulatively centuries worth of thinking/being/sensing.
posted by naju at 2:22 PM on October 25, 2011


I had no idea their life span was so short.

I've raised a few of them from babies, and this is the thing that sort of keeps me from doing it all the time. It's wonderful to watch them grow and get smarter and more playful, but it's always a bit bittersweet, because you know that, as cool as they are, they will only live for a year or two most of the time.

Yet, every few years I feel the need to try it again, because my house just seems to be the kind of place that needs little Kraken babies hiding in the corners of the tank.
posted by quin at 2:23 PM on October 25, 2011 [9 favorites]


Fantastic article. And fascinating animal - makes me jealous of the guy volunteering with them!
posted by leslies at 2:25 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Let not over anthropomorphize these creatures.

Sure, lets not. But that's exactly what you're doing by limiting your indicators of intelligence to using human language or tools or, heh, riding a bicycle. There are many kinds of intelligence, and what is intelligent for an octopus is different than what is intelligent for a human.

They're totally different worlds, and that's what the article is talking about - an intelligence that is foreign and alien to us, and difficult to understand.

If the roles were reversed the octopods would be calling us idiots because we can't squeeze through a hole the size of our eyeballs, do eight things at once with our many-brained arms or change our skin color and texture to match the environment or communicate with each other non-verbally through mimetic displays.
posted by loquacious at 2:25 PM on October 25, 2011 [32 favorites]


Oh, that's a great article! Thanks for sharing it!
posted by JHarris at 2:26 PM on October 25, 2011


I'm neither a marine biologist nor early childhood developmental expert, but I'm almost certain my kids had a more developed vocabulary at three than an octopus. I'm almost certain three year olds are pretty good with tools, something octopi are not. I'm pretty certain some three year olds can ride a bike, there is not a single octopus in the history of the world that can do that.

Yeah, but are your three-year-old children covered in suckers and equipped with neurotoxic beaks? WHO'S THE MORE INTELLIGENT SPECIES NOW?
posted by Greg Nog at 2:29 PM on October 25, 2011 [26 favorites]


I'm neither a marine biologist nor early childhood developmental expert, but I'm almost certain my kids had a more developed vocabulary at three than an octopus.

Yeah, but how long can they live underwater?

Besides, science proved that babies are stupid a decade and a half ago.
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:31 PM on October 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


Let not over anthropomorphize these creatures.

I have yet to see a toddler successfully hunt for dinner.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:34 PM on October 25, 2011 [13 favorites]


Intelligence is not well defined. The psychology in the article is rank. The octopuses, on the other hand . . .
posted by stonepharisee at 2:34 PM on October 25, 2011


This is why genetic engineering is a good thing; so we can give octopi hundred year-long lifespans and the ability to breath air.

What? I'm sure there's no way this clever plan can go wrong!
posted by happyroach at 2:39 PM on October 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


And fusion technology.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:42 PM on October 25, 2011


I can never get enough "Here's why Octopi are Awesome" articles.
posted by lekvar at 2:44 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've always wondered what exactly causes an octopus's death after mating, and with some type of surgery (probably making them sterile) they would live longer.
posted by ShooBoo at 2:49 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have a hard time understanding my fellow humans sometimes, let alone eight-limbed invertebrates beneath the sea. "Yes, they are intelligent and fascinating, but it is almost dinner time."

Arguably, your summary of the conflict is the crux of what makes humans human. If all other predatory animals on the planet attack and kill what they want to eat, without guilt or remorse, we actually bother to ask ourselves whether we should abandon our own needs and desires in order to protect the life of this other creature. Consider it an evolutionary step between "hungry must kill and eat" towards "empathetic must protect and encourage."
posted by davejay at 2:57 PM on October 25, 2011 [7 favorites]


with some type of surgery (probably making them sterile) they would live longer.

Weirdly, Cracked just had a thing about this a couple of weeks ago (#6).

Basically, if you remove the glands that cause it, the octopus will live for another six months or so. It will extend their life, but not by much.

They are just hard wired to live fast and die young.
posted by quin at 3:12 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


You haven't lived until you have been diving, and stared into the inscrutable depths of a living octopus's eye.
posted by Decani at 3:24 PM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


I feel that we should leave a note for the cephalopods. It should be encoded in binary and in several languages, imprinted in stainless steel and buried near someplace that's going to be a tropical beach in about ten million years, and it should say something like: Hey guys! Listen, we saw your little cousins and we thought we should drop you a note for later on when you evolved. You figured it out about the evolution, right? Of course you did. Anyway, we're really sorry about the oceans. Hope some of that trash was helpful with the whole advanced-tool-usage thing.
One more thing -- you folks are probably going to want to invent agriculture and sedentary societies along about now. We just wanted to tell you: don't. Sure, it takes care of the food supply and all, but the next thing you know there's billions of everybody everywhere you look, and you have to invent hierarchy and banks and religions and pollution and, well, long story short, that's why there's none of us left.
Best of luck out there
-- H. sapiens sapiens
posted by Countess Elena at 3:31 PM on October 25, 2011 [25 favorites]


I've been saving this comment from a thread a long time ago, by elendil71.

I wonder if that might have been a Blanket Octopus couple? It took many years for scientists to work out why they never saw males & females together. It turned out that they're the most sexually dimorphous creatures on the planet (males & females differ very greatly in their physical characteristics), so they never realised that octopus 'species' A was in fact the mate of 'species' B.

The females can be metres wide, and float around the oceans on parachute-like webbing between their tentacles. The males are about the size of a walnut, but have a nifty trick to protect themselves: they're immune to deadly jellyfish stingers, so they break a couple off a jellyfish, and carry them as weapons.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:32 PM on October 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


They are just hard wired to live fast and die young.

So, when they rise up from their watery kingdom to subjugate the creatures of the earth, we will be able to lure our cephalopodian overlords to their doom with 8-armed leather jackets and flash cars with rigged steering?
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:44 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


They have already been to space!
posted by get off of my cloud at 3:45 PM on October 25, 2011


That article makes reference to two octopus videos. I know which one is the octopus materializing from a clump of algae, but where is the one that is "a mimic octopus alternately morphing into a flatfish, several sea snakes, and a lionfish"?

The males are about the size of a walnut, but have a nifty trick to protect themselves: they're immune to deadly jellyfish stingers, so they break a couple off a jellyfish, and carry them as weapons.

Now I will imagine tiny little octopus duels, using stingers as weapons.
posted by jeather at 3:46 PM on October 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


...where is the one that is "a mimic octopus alternately morphing into a flatfish, several sea snakes, and a lionfish"?

It's the Indonesian Mimic Octopus (not sure if that's the species or just a practical description).
posted by McCoy Pauley at 3:51 PM on October 25, 2011


Just for the record - if anyone in this thread complains at some point that there are too many octopus threads on the blue they are wrong. There is no such thing as too many octopus threads.
posted by Blue Meanie at 3:57 PM on October 25, 2011 [8 favorites]


You guys are just sucking up to the octopi in hopes you'll be spared when the revolution comes.
posted by The Whelk at 4:15 PM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Giant Pacific Octopuses are actually relatively common in the waters around Seattle. If you've walked or driven by the water here, chances are you've been closer to one than you might think.
posted by fnerg at 4:18 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Now I feel really, really guilty about that night long ago in the sushi restaurant.
posted by empatterson at 4:25 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I talked last year with a couple in town visiting their daughter, who was finishing up an animal care internship at the Georgia Aquarium. Apparently the daughter took her parents in several times to visit a particular octopus--not to show the octopus to her parents, but to show her parents as fresh entertainment for the octopus.
posted by nicebookrack at 4:30 PM on October 25, 2011 [11 favorites]


This is really good stuff - thanks for posting it.
posted by jquinby at 4:40 PM on October 25, 2011


Lovely article - thanks for posting it! Octopi are the most alien sentient creatures I can imagine from my vertebrate perspective. I can grok birds and whales and even fish - flappin' their gills is close enough to breathing - but the way octopi ripple and ooze just breaks my rigid bone-encased brain. Short-lived + antisocial + smart also looks like a strange combination from here in primate land. Plus they evolved distributed processing with 3/5 of their neurons in their arms, whereas we only just got around to inventing it. They must think we're such posers.

I wonder if there's any way for a science fiction writer to create a convincing octopus-based character. How capable are we of imagining the mind of a creature who is so radically different from us? Forget Earthling octopi - not smart enough - I want a fully sapient alien octopus civilization that uses complex tools and, uh, does intelligent stuff (no I don't know what that would be either) with their squishy bodies and peripheral brains. NaNoWriMo is just around the corner, people.
posted by Quietgal at 5:13 PM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


I really like occtopii, I have Warren the baby ones in a Chinese buffet place ONCE. They were delicious, but I still feel bad about it because these animals seem so special.
That they like and dislike, that they play, that they have emotions, and plainly think things over, makes it sad they have such short lives.
I wonder if Athena sensed the author's friendly intentions? If perhaps she tasted that the author was friendly.
Thanks for posting this!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 5:34 PM on October 25, 2011


Discovering a baby octopus in my soup while in Paris was a total, "Oh god we ate the talking deer that begged for it's life in The Silver Chair" moment. I very quickly lost my appetite.
posted by The Whelk at 5:45 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


You guys are just sucking up to the octopi in hopes you'll be spared when the revolution comes.

Hey, I was perfectly transparent about my sucking up. The second that they figure out how to make fire and steel underwater we're totally fucked. Considering their accelerated lifespan it'll only take 'em a hundred years or so to go from no technology to reliable fusion power.

Some suggest we should nuke the ocean but they already tried that.
posted by loquacious at 5:48 PM on October 25, 2011


I wonder if there's any way for a science fiction writer to create a convincing octopus-based character.

Not exactly but Peter Watts did something similar in Blindsight.
posted by digitalprimate at 6:01 PM on October 25, 2011


the Anti-Social aspect is the most alien, they seem like they can be friendly with other species, but regard their own as food and or mates.
posted by The Whelk at 6:02 PM on October 25, 2011


I will now tell my one octopus story.
The article discusses a series of crab-in-a-box puzzle experiments. I once got to meet an octopus who had been trained on a similar puzzle. Her puzzle was a small (~2.5" on a side) cube of clear plastic, with 1/8" holes drilled in the sides. The octopus could see in, smell the crab inside, and even reach the tips of her tentacles in to touch the crab. In order to actually get it though, she had to open the box. The box was split in the middle, hinged at one side, and it snapped shut at the other side. The hinge and snap were cast as part of the plastic, so there was no clear visual cue for which sides needed to be grasped and pulled apart in order to open the box. This octopus knew she had to grab the box by two sides and pull them apart, but she couldn't tell which sides to grab, so had to resort to trial and error. The snap was also quite tight, so it took serious effort for to open the box even if she got it right.
When the biologist first dropped her the box, she responded eagerly, jetting out of her hide to grab it. She pulled, but nothing happened. She pulled harder. She rotated the box, and pulled more, growing visually agitated. She looked like a person struggling with a stuck jar lid. She clearly wanted the crab, but couldn't tell if she had the wrong angle, or just wasn't pulling hard enough. After a few minutes of this, she gave one last pull...and then abruptly dropped the box, jetted to the opposite corner of her tank, and flashed through five or six colors in rapid succession. She sat and sulked in that corner for at least 10 minutes, while the biologist took the crab away. I have never seen any animal have such an obvious fit of pique as that octopus had.
posted by agentofselection at 7:20 PM on October 25, 2011 [39 favorites]


That was terrific, thank you very much.
posted by smoke at 8:22 PM on October 25, 2011


I, too, have an octopus story. It goes like this:

I was a teenager on vacation with my family. We'd saved for several years to go to St. Thomas, and there we were. I saw a big ol' conch-looking shell on the beach as the waves rolled back and I picked it up and turned it over.

A big glob of black stuff fell out of the shell, followed by a big glob of grey stuff. The next wave carried the black stuff (ink) up the beach and dispersed it. The same wave carried grey glob (an octopus, about the size of my hand) up the beach, and then back down towards the water....where it met my leg.

Howdy! It wrapped around my foot.

In a split second, everything that I'd read about the blue-ringed octopus came to mind...except, strangely, for the bit about them only living in parts of the Pacific.

Time froze. This, I thought, is how I die. I shrieked the shriek of the damned, capered around the sand for a moment and launched that thing about 30 yards into the water. When my parents finally stopped laughing, and I'd caught my breath, I was able to explain what had actually happened (they thought I'd stepped on a jellyfish or a piece of glass).

My explanation sent them into gales of laughter which continue, at intervals, to this day. It was 25+ years ago. By the time we got back home, the story had turned into a full-on 20,000 Leagues style battle royale.
posted by jquinby at 8:29 PM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


By the time we got back home, the story had turned into a full-on 20,000 Leagues style battle royale.

Which by no small coincidence is exactly how stories like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or tall tales from sailors about fighting off giant Kraken or other sea monsters get started.

Someone is fishing for tuna or something and accidentally hauls up a perfectly normal but respectably sized squid, gets jetted or inked, maybe lacerated by some hooked suckers before they bludgeon it to death or cut the line and toss it overboard.

By the time they get home they've retold it a thousand times over grog rations and it's now fifty feet long and responsible for the crew not completing their voyage because it sounds a lot better than "crew caught scurvy" or "three men lost overboard during storm after double grog rations."
posted by loquacious at 8:58 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I always liked this little anecdote, from a previous octo-thread.
posted by gamera at 9:21 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


They are insanely well evolved predators that if they could would eat you in a heartbeat. Athena in the story? Did you read the bit where another volunteer walked away covered in tentacle tracks? They're cute like polar bears are cute. At least humans have the option to be herbivores.
posted by Peztopiary at 1:41 AM on October 26, 2011


Security guru Bruce Schneier's blog has "Friday squid blogging" as a supplement to a steady diet of crypto, privacy and safety news.
posted by Harald74 at 2:36 AM on October 26, 2011


Re this and this, as much as I absolutely love Blindsight, I think Stephen Baxter's Manifold: Space is the far more relevant reference here. A squid is one of the main characters of the (excellent even without the squid parts) story.
posted by cthuljew at 3:19 AM on October 26, 2011


Mollusks evolved brains on four different occasions
posted by homunculus at 1:02 PM on October 26, 2011


As I read the article, I was thinking about how incredibly cool the author's first encounter sounded, and maybe I'd like to try getting up close to a giant octopus like that someday.

Until I got to the part about the neurotoxic flesh-dissolving venom. Now I think I'll keep my distance.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:53 PM on October 26, 2011


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