I have an addiction. Every time I enter an independent bookstore, an almost physical force compels me to pick up a book or three before I depart. On a recent trip to City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, amid the counterculture and beatnik tomes I picked up a funny little book called Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea. And it was awesome. Author Katherine Harmon Courage’s bizarre juxtaposition of octopus as muse and octopus as meal played out masterfully. Courage entices you with a baby octopus cocktail recipe, then cautions that catching octopuses this size is illegal. She takes you to a Spanish cephalopod research lab, then the lab director takes you out to a fresh octopus feast of Pulpo a Feira. This style continues throughout: incredible octopus facts are contextualized in the wider ecosystem in which these creatures live.
Octopuses (along with cuttlefish) aren’t always the greyish white color you see at a seafood restaurant. In the wild, it’s often hard to spot an octopus even on a sandy ocean floor. The octopus can camouflage to match its environment in 3/10 of a second. This isn’t wimpy chameleon camouflage: in addition to color, the octopus can match texture, pattern, and even the luminosity of the surrounding environment. No wonder the DoD is spending millions of dollars to fund octopus-inspired natural disguise research.
As mollusks, octopuses lack a vertebrae and a central nervous system. Most of an octopus’ brain is distributed among his eight arms. Research suggests that these arms can communicate with each other independent of the central brain in order to make decisions and coordinate movement. This decentralized decision-making is another area of inquiry for scientists interested in decentralized neurons working together to coordinate information processing and control. Further research into search and rescue is investigating the octopus’s ability to fit through through holes an inch in diameter.
Other fun facts: The blanket octopus (O. tremoctopus) females can grow to 6 1/2 feet in length, while males top out around an inch. Octopuses bleed blue because their blood contains copper (not iron). They transfer knowledge through genetics rather than raising and teaching their young. Depictions of octopuses in Japanese manga can get…strange. Seriously, read this book!
*The plural of octopus is octopuses, not octopi, thanks to its Greek origin.