On octopuses and family gatherings.

On octopuses and family gatherings.

Recently, a dear friend sent me an article from Scientific American about the blanket octopus.

She and I had been discussing unusual animal mating, because that’s what you do, right? Global pandemic hits and you share freaky trivia with your friends.

Miniscule male anglerfish will merge with the body of a female if they find her, feeding off her blood. Deadbeat male clinginess at its worst.

Blanket octopuses also have extreme sexual dimorphism – a female’s tentacles can span seven feet wide, whereas the males are smaller than an inch.

But, wait, there’s more! In a 1963 article for Science magazine, marine biologist Everet Jones speculated that blanket octopuses might use jellyfish stingers as weapons.

While on a research cruise, Jones installed a night-light station to investigate the local fish.

Among the frequent visitors to the submerged light were a number of immature female blanket octopuses. I dip-netted one of these from the water and lifted it by hand out of the net. I experienced sudden and severe pain and involuntarily threw the octopus back into the water.

To determine the mechanism responsible for this sensation, 10 or 12 small octopuses were captured and I purposely placed each one on the tender areas of my hands. The severe pain occurred each time, but careful observation indicated that I was not being bitten.

The pain and resulting inflammation, which lasted several days, resembled the stings of the Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish, which was quite abundant in the area.

tl;dr – “It really hurt! So I did it again.”


My spouse teaches high school biology. An important part of her class is addressing misconceptions about what science is.

Every so often, newspapers will send a reporter to interview my father about his research. Each time, they ask him to put on a lab coat and pipette something:

I mean, look at that – clearly, SCIENCE is happening here.

But it’s important to realize that this isn’t always what science looks like. Most of the time, academic researchers aren’t wearing lab coats. And most of the time, science isn’t done in a laboratory.

Careful observation of the natural world. Repeated tests to discover, if I do this, what will happen next? There are important parts of science, and these were practiced by our ancestors for thousands of years, long before anyone had laboratories. Indigenous people around the world have known so much about their local varieties of medicinal plants, and that’s knowledge that can only be acquired through scientific practice.

A nine month old who keeps pushing blocks off the edge of the high chair tray to see, will this block fall down, too? That’s science!

And this octopus article, published in the world’s most prestigious research journal? The experiment was to scoop up octopuses by hand and see how much it hurt.

It hurt a lot.


The article that I linked to earlier, the Scientific American blog post that my friend had sent me, includes a video clip at the bottom. Here’s a direct link to the video:

I should warn, you, though. The first section of the video shows a blanket octopus streaming gracefully through the ocean. She’s beautiful. But then the clip continues with footage of a huge school of fish.

Obviously, I was hoping that they’d show the octopus lurch forward, wielding those jellyfish stingers like electrified nun-chucks to incapacitate the fish. I mean, yes, I’m vegan. I don’t want the fish to die. But an octopus has to eat. And, if the octopus is going to practice wicked cool tool-using martial arts, then I obviously want to see it.

But I can’t. Our oceans are big, and deep, and dark. We’re still making new discoveries when we send cameras down there. So far, nobody has ever filmed a blanket octopus catching fish this way.


Every time I learn something new about octopuses, I think about family reunions.

About twenty years ago, I attended a family reunion in upstate New York. My grandparents were celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Many people were there whom I’d never met before, and whom I haven’t seen since. But most of us shared ancestors, often four or five or even six generations back.

And we all shared ancestors at some point, even the people who’d married in. From the beginning of life on Earth until 150,000 years ago, you could draw a single lineage – _____ begat ______ who begat ______ – that leads up to every single human alive today. We have an ancestor in common who lived 150,000 years ago, and so every lineage that leads to her will be shared by us all.

There’s also an ancestor that all humans alive today share with all octopuses alive today. So we could host a family reunion for all of her descendants – we humans would be invited, and blanket octopuses would be, too.

I would love to meet a blanket octopus. They’re brilliant creatures. If we could find a way to communicate, I’m sure there’d be lots to talk about.

But there’s a problem. You see, not everyone invited to this family reunion would be a scintillating conversationalist.

That ancestor we share? Here’s a drawing of her from Jian Han et al.’s Nature article.

She was about the size of a grain of rice.

And, yes, some of her descendants are brilliant. Octopuses. Dolphins. Crows. Chimpanzees. Us.

But this family reunion would also include a bunch of worms, moles, snails, and bugs. A lot of bugs. Almost every animals would’ve been invited, excluding only jellyfish and sponges. Many of the guests would want to lay eggs in the potato salad.

So, sure, it’d be cool to get to meet up with the octopuses, our long-lost undersea cousins. But we might end up seated next to an earthworm instead.

I’m sure that worms are very nice. Charles Darwin was fascinated by the intelligence of earthworms. Still, it’s hard to have a conversation with somebody when you don’t have a lot of common interests.

On octopus literature, a reprise: what would books be like if we didn’t love gossip?

On octopus literature, a reprise: what would books be like if we didn’t love gossip?

A few months ago, I lost several days reading about the structure of octopus brains.  A fascinating subject — they are incredibly intelligent creatures despite sharing little evolutionary history with any other intelligent species.  And their minds are organized differently from our own.

Human minds are highly centralized — we can’t do much without our head being involved.  Whereas octopus minds seem to be distributed throughout their bodies.  It’s difficult to address how this might feel for an octopus, but researchers have studied the behavior of hacked-off octopus tentacles.  An octopus tentacle can behave intelligently even when it’s not connected to the rest of the body.  Each limb may have something akin to a mind of its own.

Which seems fascinating from the perspective of narrative.  The way human minds seem to work is, first our subconscious makes a decision, then a signal is sent to our muscles.  We speak, or press a button, or pull our hand away from something hot. And then, last, our conscious mind begins rationalizing why we made that choice.

The temporal sequencing is wacky, sure. But for the purpose of this essay, the important concept is that a centralized brain makes all the choices and constructs a coherent narrative for why each choice was made.

An octopus might find it more difficult to construct a single unifying narrative to explain its actions in a way that we humans would consider logical.  There are hints that octopus tentacles have characteristics akin to personalities — some behave as though shy, some as though bold, some aggressive, some curious.  If one tentacle is trying to hide while another is trying to attack, there might not be a single internal narrative that describes the creature’s self-sabotage.

And what might your personality be? Shy? Bold? Inquisitive? Photo by Jaula De Ardilla.

From our perspective, octopus consciousness might be like trying to explain in one sweep the behavior of an entire rambunctious dysfunctional family.  Sure, some calamities would affect them all together, but moment by moment each family member might have his or her own distinct interests.  A daughter who wants to stay out late, a mother who wants her daughter home by nine, a father who wants somebody to play catch in the yard, a son who just wants to be left alone…

It’s not that the collective is inexplicable, it’s just that we humans are unaccustomed to thinking of collectives like that as representing a single consciousness.  We look for logical motivations on a smaller scale — centralized minds — than an octopus might embrace as its worldview.

Anyway, I thought this might have a big impact on the way octopus literature would be structured.  Once, you know, they develop a language, start spinning myths, etc.

(To the best of my knowledge, there is no octopus language.  If they have one that’s chemical- or color-based, I’m not sure I would even notice.  Someone else probably would’ve, though.)

unnamed (1)While reading Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus, I learned that there would probably be another major difference between octopus literature and our own.  Their literature might seem chaotic to human readers, yes.  But also, our literature is often character-drivenOur brains evolved to gossip, and the books that most human readers love most feature charming, striking individuals.  I love The Idiot largely because of the dynamic between Myshkin and Rogozhin, In Search of Lost Time for the vicarious misery of watching Marcel’s crumbling relationship with Albertine.  Readers of Game of Thrones are immersed in a rich world of political intrigue, tracking everyone’s motives as they push against each other.

Octopus readers might not care about any of that.  From Montgomery’s book:

Belonging to a group is one of humankind’s deepest desires.  We’re a social species, like our primate ancestors.  Evolutionary biologists suggest that keeping track of our many social relationships over our long lives was one of the factors driving the evolution of the human brain.  In fact, intelligence itself is most often associated with similarly social and long-lived creatures, like chimps, elephants, parrots, and whales.

But octopuses represent the opposite end of this spectrum.  They are famously short-lived, and most do not appear to be social.  There are intriguing exceptions: Male and female lesser Pacific striped octopuses, for instance, sometimes cohabit in pairs, sharing a single den.  Groups of these octopuses may live in associations of forty or more animals — a fact so unexpected that it was disbelieved and unpublished for thirty years, until Richard Ross of the Steinhart Aquarium recently raised the long-forgotten species in his home lab.  But the giant Pacific, at least, is thought to seek company only at the end of its life, to mate.  And even that is an iffy proposition, as one known outcome is the literal dinner date, when one octopus eats the other.  If not to interact with fellow octopuses, what is their intelligence for?  If octopuses don’t interact with each other, why would they want to interact with us?

Jennifer, the octopus psychologist, says, “The same thing that got them their smarts isn’t the same thing that got us our smarts.”  Octopus and human intelligence evolved separately and for different reasons.  She believes the event driving the octopus toward intelligence was the loss of the ancestral shell.  Losing the shell freed the animal for mobility.  An octopus, unlike a clam, does not have to wait for food to find it; the octopus can hunt like a tiger.  And while most octopuses love crab best, a single octopus may hunt many dozens of different prey species, each of which demands a different hunting strategy, a different skill set, a different set of decisions to make and modify.  Will you camouflage yourself for a stalk-and-ambush attack?  Shoot through the sea with your siphon for a quick chase?  Crawl out of the water to capture escaping prey?

Come to think of it, the mammalian Auntie Ferret would also enjoy reading “The Loner’s Guide to Building Fabulous Underwater Contraptions”

All of which made me realize, an octopus reader would probably be indifferent to well-crafted characters with rich inner lives.  An octopus would probably care more far more about the plot than the characters.  My assumption is that an ideal octopus novel would be  a thriller, crammed full of facts, action-packed, and weave together numerous barely-integrated narratives.

Indeed, octopus readers might not like Montgomery’s book, since she devotes so much space to the tangled lives and interactions of the humans who love and study them.  The Soul of an Octopus is clearly intended for a human audience.

I’d be curious to read a book written specifically for an octopus someday… although it’s probable that, like music composed specifically for tamarin monkeys, octopus literature would seem awful to me.

On mental architecture and octopus literature.

CaptureI might spend too much time thinking about how brains work.  Less than some people, sure — everybody working on digital replication of human thought must devote more energy than I do to the topic, and they’re doing it in a more rigorous way — but for a dude with no professional connection to cognitive science or neurobiology or what-have-you, I spend an unreasonable amount of time obsessing over ’em.

What can I say?  Brains are cool.  That they function at all is pretty amazing, and that they do it in a way that gives us either free will or at least the illusion of having it is even better.

Most of my “obsessing over brains” time is devoted to thinking about how humans work, but studies on animal cognition always floor me as well.  A major focus of these studies, though, is often how similar human minds are to those of other animals… for instance, my recent hamsters & poverty essay was about the common response of most mammalian species to unfair, unrectifiable circumstance, and I’m planning a piece on the (mild) similarities between prairie dog language and our own.

The only post I’ve slapped up lately on differences between human and animal cognition was about potential rattlesnake misconceptions, but even that piece hinged upon a difference in the way they see, not the way they think.

Today’s post, though, will be about octopi.

A baby octopus (graneledone verrucosa)  moves across the seafloor as ROV Deep Discoverer (D2) explores Veatch Canyon.

A study on octopus evolution was recently published in Nature (Albertin et al., “The octopus genome and the evolution of cephalopod neural and morphological novelties”), and the main thing I learned from that paper & some background reading is that octopus brains are wicked cool.

Honestly, if we asked Superman to spin our planet backward some twenty billion times in order to re-run evolution, I think cephalopods could give apes a run for their money on potential planetary dominance.  Cephalopods are quite intelligent, adept problem solvers, have tentacles sufficiently agile for tool use, and can communicate by changing colors (although with much less finesse than the octospiders in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series. The octospiders used a language based on shifting striations of color displayed on their skin).


The biggest obstacle holding octopi back from world domination is the difficulty for a water-dwelling species to harness fire or electricity.  But octopi can make brief sojourns onto dry land… and even land-dwelling apes took something like 20 million years to discover fire and some 22 million for electricity.

Sure, that’s faster than octopi — they’ve had a hundred million years already and still no fire — but once Superman spins the planet (first he fought crime!  Now he’ll muck up our timeline to investigate evolution!), there’ll be a chance for him to stop that asteroid and save the dinosaurs.  I imagine that living in constant terror of T-Rex & friends would slow the apes down a little.

I’ve never had to work under that kind of pressure, but it’s probably much more difficult to discover fire if you’re worried that a dinosaur will stomp by, demolish your laboratory, and eat you.

Octopi ingenuity might be similarly stymied by pervasive fear of giant monsters: sharks, dolphins, sea lions, seals, eels, and, yes, those ostensibly land-bound hairless apes.  Voracious, vicious predators all… especially those apes.


And yet.  Despite the fear, octopi are extremely clever.  They have a massive genome, too.  In itself, genome size is not a measure of complexity, in part because faulty cell division machinery sometimes results in the duplication of entire genomes — no matter how many copies of Fuzzy Bee & Friends you staple together, even if you create a 1,000+ page monstrosity, you won’t create a narrative with the complexity of The Odyssey.

That’s what researchers thought had happened with the octopus genome.  Sure, they have more genes than us, but they’re probably all duplicates!  Albertin et al. were the first to actually test that hypothesis, though… and it turns out to be wrong.  The octopus genome underwent massive expansion specifically for neural proteins & regulatory regions.  Which suggests that their huge genome is not dreck, that it is actually the product of intense selection for cognitive performance.  It isn’t proof, but it’s definitely consistent with selection for greater mental capacities.

There isn’t any octopus literature yet, but evolution isn’t done.  As long as octopus survival & mating success is bolstered by intelligence, there’s a chance the species will continue to slowly “improve.”

(I am biased in favor of smart creatures, but more brainpower is not necessarily better in an evolutionary sense.  For an example, here’s my essay on starfish zombies.)


But even if a species derived from contemporary octopi eventually gains cognitive capacities equivalent to our own, we may never grasp the way they perceive the world.  Their brains are organized very differently from our own.  Our minds are highly centralized — our actions result from decisions passed down from on high.

For most human actions, it seems that the mind subconsciously initiates movement, firing off instructions to the appropriate muscles, and then the conscious mind notices what’s going on and concocts a story to rationalize that action.  For instance, if you touch something hot, nociceptors (pain receptors) in your hand send an “Ouch!” signal to your brain, your brain relays back “Pull yer damn hand away!”, then the conscious mind types up a report, “I decided to pull my hand away because that was too hot.”

(Some people have argued that this sequence of timing indicates that we lack free will, by the way.  Which seems silly.  Our freedom doesn’t need to be at the level of conscious decision-making to be worthwhile.  Indeed, your subconscious is as much you as your consciousness.  Your subconscious reflexes reflect who you are, and with concerted effort you can modify most if not all of them.)

Octopi minds are different.  They seem to be much more decentralized.  Each tentacle has a significant neural network and can act independently.  Octopus tentacles can still move and make minor decisions even if cleaved away… like the zombie movie trope where a severed arm continues to strangle someone.

Since we have no good way to communicate with octopi, we don’t know whether their minds are wired for storytelling the way ours are.  Whether they also construct elaborate internal rationalizations for every action (does this help explain why I’m so fascinated by free will?  Even if our freedom is illusory, the ability to maintain that illusion underpins our ability to tell stories).

But if octopi do explain their world with stories, the types of stories they tell would presumably seem highly chaotic to us humans.  Our brains are building explanations for decisions made internally, whereas an octopus would be constructing a narrative from the actions of eight independently-acting entities.

Who knows?  Someday, many many years from now, if octopi undergo further selection for brain power & communication, we might find octopus literature to be exceptionally rambunctious.  Brimming with arbitrary twists & turns.  If their minds also tend toward narrative storytelling (and it’s worth mentioning that octopi also process time in a cascade of short-term and long-term memory the way mammals do), their stories would likely veer inexorably toward the inexplicable.

Toward, that is, actions & consequences that a human reader would perceive to be inexplicable.

Octopi might likewise condemn our own classics as overly regimented.  Lifeless, stilted, formulaic.  And it’d be devilishly hard to explain to an octopus why I think In Search of Lost Time is so good.



p.s. I should offer a brief mea culpa for having listed different lengths of time that apes & octopi have had with which to discover fire.  All known life uses the same genetic code, so it’s extremely likely that we all share a common ancestor.  Everything alive today — bacteria, birds, octopi, humans — have had the same length of time to evolve.

This is part of why it sounds so silly when people refer to contemporary bacteria as being “lower” life forms or somehow less evolved.  Current bacteria have had just as long to perfect themselves for their environments as we have, and they simply pursued a different strategy for survival than humans did.  (For more on this topic, feel free to read this previous post.)

I listed different numbers, though… mostly because it seemed funny to imagine a lineage of octopi racing the apes in that “decent of man” cartoon.  Who will conquer the planet first?!

I chose my times based on the divergence of great apes from their nearest common ancestor (gibbons, whom we’ve rudely declared to be “lesser apes”) and the divergence of octopi from theirs (squids, ca. 135 million years ago).  The numbers themselves are pretty accurate, but the choice of those particular numbers was arbitrary.  You could easily rationalize instead starting the clock for apes in their quest for fire as soon as the first primates appeared, ca. 65 million years ago… then octopi don’t look so bad.  Perhaps only two-fold slower than us.  Or you could start the apes’ clock at the appearance of the very first mammals… in which case octopi might beat us yet.