Humanity’s Big Shoes May be Filling With 8 Arms


By Simone Burton

Inky was close. He could almost taste the fresh, salty seawater on his purple skin and the embrace of his soon-to-be mate in his eight, sucker-lined arms. He slithered across the remaining thirteen feet of the aquarium’s floor. In front of him was a small drain in the floor, rushing with seawater from the aquariums surrounding him. Looking back, Inky spied the gap in his aquarium tank lid he had just squeezed through moments ago. Smirking at his clever escape, he quietly slipped down the drain to freedom: the open sea.

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A Giant Pacific Octopus. Picture by Mark Biddulph, Creative Commons Licensed

Inky was a captive male octopus at the National Aquarium of New Zealand. Kerry Perkins, an octopus expert, said, “It was a male octopus and generally in the wild they would go searching for mates. He would be looking for a nice lady friend.” Inky wanted a girlfriend and went to great lengths to get one. As we all know from Finding Nemo, “All drains lead to the ocean.”But this octopus was so clever, he also knew the 164-foot-long drainpipe, a mere thirteen feet away from his tank, led to the Pacific Ocean. This is just one testament to the amazing intelligence of octopuses. (Octopi, octopuses, and octopodes are all grammatically correct now, people.)

Other amazing feats by these cephalopods (a class of marine animals that include octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish) include an octopus at a British aquarium memorizing the security guards’ night shifts so he could sneak into a nearby tank for a fishy snack, an octopus in Germany correctly picking the winning team in all seven of Germany’s games in the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, and octopuses escaping from fishing boats through tiny, tiny holes on the ships’ decks as well as escaping from the inside of childproof pill bottles.

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Picture by Kong, Creative Commons Licensed

It seems to me that a long, long, long, long time ago, on this very planet, another type of super intelligent animals evolved. They discovered fire, created the wheel, founded languages, learned to farm, and eventually created civilizations. Now, it took humans a long time to get from there to here, but we had to start somewhere, right? So, what if – and bear with me – what if octopi have started the founding of their own civilization? Think about it. Civilization refers to the development of systems, customs, culture, and advancement. Recently, “Octlantis” was discovered. In the subtropical waters of Northern New Zealand and Australia’s coasts, this city of cephalopods was found. Previously, marine biologists considered almost all species of octopi to be Lone Rangers™️, having little to no contact with other octopuses besides mating. But the international team of researchers led by David Scheel of the Alaska Pacific University that studied Octlantis said they observed 16 of these “Lone Ranger™️” octopuses living together in a village made from discarded sea shells. The colony was living in dens made of rocky outcroppings and the shell leftovers from their clam and scallop dinners. Stephanie Chancellor from the University of Illinois-Chicago calls them “true environmental engineers.” In their published study of Octlantis, the team describes the interactions they witnessed between the octopuses. Frequent interactions included “signaling, mating, mate defense, eviction of octopuses from dens, and attempts to exclude individuals from the site.” Sounds like humans and octopi inherited the same green-eyed monster trait.

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Caribbean Reef Octopus. Picture by prilfish, Creative Commons Licensed

Scientists don’t know how this colony started, but they do know this isn’t even the firstoctopi municipality. “Octopolis” was discovered in 2009, right off from Jervis Bay, Australia. Coincidence? I think not! In an interview with Quartz, Scheel stated that “These behaviors are the product of natural selection, and may be remarkably similar to vertebrate complex social behavior.” He even went on to say that “this suggests that when the right conditions occur, evolution may produce very similar outcomes in diverse groups of organisms.” Humans ended up with the first winning civilization-hand-of-cards – could octopi win the next round? There’s a possibility. Forrest Gump’s wise words of wisdom come to mind. “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” Except the box of chocolates is full of clever escapee octopi.

So the world is about to be taken over with angry, revenge-filled octopi. In about a million years. While that’s actually not something you should be worried about (in your lifetime or your kids’ or grandkids’ or great-grandkids’), it brings up the question of ethics. How can we as human beings keep an animal so intelligent and creative in captivity? There’s a reason Inky snuck out at night to get away from the aquarium. He wanted a bigger, brighter life than to be locked in the same old tank and stared at by hundreds of humans every day. In the wild, octopuses roam hundreds of yards a day hunting for their prey. You might be thinking, “Hey, we are giving octopuses a pretty nice life. They get free food for no work. Wish I had that.” But octopi are so intelligent that if you just give them everything they could ever want, they get bored pretty easily. Think of college kids finally going on winter break. They have been stressed to the max over finals, classes, assignments, and social activities, and then suddenly – it all just goes away. Winter break hits, everyone heads home for about 3 weeks, and their moms start catering away. She serves her baby breakfast in bed, does his laundry, and precious Mikey gets to watch Netflix all day, every day. Sounds nice, yeah? For about one week. Mikey quickly gets bored of Netflix 24/7 and starts wishing that school would start again. Bet he never thought he’d ever think that. Octopi are similar to college kids. Yeah, it’s nice to be catered to for about a week, but every single day? While aquarists try to use enrichment toys such as food stuck in jars and other puzzles to keep their octopus happy, it’s a disappointing substitute.

Octopi treat different people differently. Spunky individuals have been known to shoot jets of water at aquarists they don’t like. They communicate through expressive ways like changing their skin color and texture when unknown people approach. Octopuses also recognize other octopuses, fish, prey, predators, and humans in separate categories and as separate individuals. This is how they understand that to capture a swimming scallop, one must only lazily extend an arm, but to capture a fish, a faster, stealthier approach is needed. Octopi recognize that other animals have their own intents. They have the cognition to think of individuals other than themselves. So, they most likely know they are being held hostage. They may not know why, but they probably understand that they don’t get to go home anytime soon.

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The Giant Antarctic Octopus. Picture by Maia Valenzuela, Creative Commons Licensed

Civilization. Man’s greatest achievement. “Started from the bottom, now we here,” as Drake eloquently puts it. Over thousands of years, man has risen from cave-dwellers, spending all our time on hunting and foraging, to the modern day: where phones will unlock for you with facial recognition and Buzzfeed can tell you the weird way you are going to die based on what kind of “gross AF” milkshake you make. Although octopi aren’t up to this level of civilization, with a running government, agriculture, a religion, a writing system, and the arts, they do have simple versions of a few of these things. Octopi do exhibit social structure.

They been observed in the wild forming symbiotic relationships with fish. Gobies will occasionally attach to an octopus, cleaning him/her for nutrients, which the octopus tolerates because he/she gets a free “bath”. More intense relationships include coral trout hunting in collaboration with octopi on the Australian Great Barrier Reef. Coral trout are large and fast, but the reef offers many nooks and crannies for their prey to hide. Octopi, however, have long, dexterous limbs that make for good nook-and-cranny pillagers. The coral trout will shimmy their bodies outside the den of the octopus they want to help them, until the octopus gets the point. When the prey is found hiding in the reef, the coral trout will do a “headstand” vertically over the hiding spot to signal the place to the octopus. The octopi were observed as much more likely to approach the hiding spot when a coral trout did a headstand over the area than if they didn’t.

Octopi adopt complex roles in relation to each other. Males will display dominance over each other when within reach of a female as well as without females near. Gloomy octopuses (yes, that is their name) at the Octlantis location were observed actually recognizingeach other as individuals. This sounds like a small achievement because we as humans recognize separate individuals each day. Up until now, octopi who guarded their mates were not guarding them because they knew them as individuals, but because they memorized the proximity of their mate to them and visually tracked them. If they lost sight of their mate, that mate was as good as gone. But in the Octlantis city, a male octopus was observed evicting another male octopus out of his den, making an excursion around the city, then proceeding to the new den the other male octopus had picked, and evicting him again. Since he made a little trip around the city, we know that he was not visually tracking his nemesis and thus recognized him as an individual when he made the decision to evict him again.

Octopi also exhibit awareness. In fact, octopuses are the only invertebrate group named in the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness. They have the ability to infer another mind, to think how they would think. This is displayed in apes. Ape #1 sees someone hiding food, but also sees that Ape #2 saw the food being hidden as well. Ape #1 will behave differently in this situation than if he knew that only he saw the food being hidden. It’s like driving in humans. You know you messed up, so you look around to check if anyone just saw you do that. If no one did, you just forget about it and never bring it up to anyone. But if someonedidsee your mistake, you have to acknowledge the mistake and the embarrassment. You act differently because you inferred what the other person was thinking. This also goes along with learned behavior. Some animals have innate behavior, instilled in them since birth; it’s just natural. But octopi also learn as they go. David Sinn, a graduate student from Portland State University, co-authored a paper on early temperamental traits in 73 lab-bred California octopi. His study found that the octopi were antagonistic and engaging towards predators during their younger stages and gradually became more alert to danger as they developed. They had learned what battles were worth fighting.

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A Red Octopus hiding in an old shell. Picture by HarshLight, Creative Commons Licensed.

Another important aspect of octopi advancement is tool use. Divers spent over 500 hours underwater between 1999 and 2008 logging the tool use of octopi. They recorded octopuses occupying empty gastropod shells (think snails), empty coconut shells, and human trash. When a diver flushed them from their cover, they quickly reoriented the parts of the shell or object to make a covering and reoccupied it. They recognized the important safety aspect of using these shells, trash, and whatever else they had decided to use to cover their bodies. These octopi were also observed carrying these objects long distances for future use. This suggests octopi are thinking towards the future and how to make their lives easier (or longer, in the case of meeting future predators).

Ultimately, the question is whether this civilization is really possible. There is evidence that octopi are smart; they have cities, they have tools and the knowledge to use them, and they have relationships to one another as well as positive relationships with other species. Can octopi civilization become an actual thing?? It would work, except for one detail. Octopi live, on average, one to two years. The longest-lived octopus lives for only 4.5 years. Both male and female octopi die soon after mating. Males die a few months after impregnating the female and the female dies shortly after her eggs hatch as she spends the month before her eggs hatch not eating nor sleeping in order to protect them from predators. Octo-mom essentially dies so her eggs can live. These life-history traits aren’t the best options for starting a thriving civilization. An individual octopus can’t accomplish much in its lifetime, eliminating the passage of that knowledge onto its young that would continue the tradition. If octopi had life cycles more like humans, maybe, just maybe, a civilization could start. One day, in a distant future, when humans are all living on Saturn in hover-homes, maybe octopi will have evolved long enough lifetimes to fill our big shoes with their eight arms.

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