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The Incredible Octopus

While researching commercial fisheries in Latin America, I came across an octopus fishery in Mexico that made my heart sink. As a policy analyst I try to objectively review catch data, the value of “resources”, population statistics and “sustainable” yields. However, seeing the annual catch of 37,364 tons, I realized that the language we use fails to honor the lives of these incredible creatures. How many individual octopuses were killed to produce that many tons of “product”? Though this statistic is seldom recorded, available conversions suggest it amounts to over eight million octopuses in one year from one country.


In 2022, the worldwide octopus catch was reported at 389,000 tons, translating to well over 84 million individual octopuses, a conservative estimate, given the unreported and illegal catch. While this figure is staggering, numbers alone rarely motivate behavior change, such as eating less or no octopus or even pausing to appreciate and thank the octopus before a meal. In today’s society, we are too detached from the origins of our food and the natural world to recognize the life given and our interdependence.


Having completed hundreds of recreational and research-driven scuba dives, I have observed octopuses in their natural habitat and been awestruck at their uniqueness and beauty. Watching Chris Foster’s My Octopus Teacher, and James Cameron’s the Secrets of the Octopus, has further expanded my respect and understanding of the octopus. These films reveal octopuses’ individual personalities, intelligence and ability to form meaningful relationships with humans. Beyond numbers and reasoning, films like these open our awareness and invite compassion and empathy which can inspire real change. If you haven’t already seen these films, I highly recommend them.


What Do We Know About Octopus Life History and Biology?


Octopuses are invertebrates that lived long before dinosaurs with fossils dating back over 330 million years. Diverging from vertebrates roughly 560 million years ago, their advanced cognitive abilities challenge the notion that only mammals and vertebrates can be highly intelligent. Octopuses rely heavily on their intelligence from the moment they hatch and begin life alone, figuring out defensive strategies, hunting technique and mapping their surroundings without any parental guidance or knowledge passed down generationally. Their life spans range from 1-5 years, depending on the species, due to their reproductive strategy where both males and females die shortly after mating. The male dies shortly after releasing his sperm, whereas the female stops eating and slowly starves while she guards her eggs for 3 months up to 4 years, depending on the species.


Octopuses have around 500 million neurons, which is comparable to dogs and some monkeys. Roughly two-thirds of those neurons are found in the eight arms of the octopus, which means that each arm can independently problem solve, or it can be controlled by the central brain. This unique decentralized nervous system challenges our understanding of consciousness and brain function and offers an alternative way of organizing these complex systems.


Clearly sentient beings, octopuses experience pain, distress, joy and excitement. Octopuses have a large ratio of brain to body size, a common measure of relative intelligence, and solve challenging puzzles, remember solutions and take things apart for fun. They can untie knots, unscrew jars, open toddler-proof cases, open clamshells that have been wired shut, navigate mazes with ease and even have been shown to play games for fun. Known for their tool use, which is relatively rare in the animal kingdom and is something we tend to associate with apes, monkeys, dolphins and some birds, octopuses have been known to build shields and shelters with coconut shells and seashells and make weapons with the poisonous tentacles from Portuguese man-o-wars. They also engage in two-stage sleep, which means they fall into REM cycles and appear to dream. Two-stage sleep has been linked to memory consolidation and creativity.


Octopuses are the world’s most skilled camouflage artist, capable of changing skin color and texture instantly. Some even mimic venomous animals like lionfish and sea snakes to deceive predators. They know which disguise to use for each specific predator, and they change their swim behavior as well as their appearance. Octopuses can regenerate severed arms, each equipped with more than 2,000 individually moving suction cups that can feel, taste and smell. Octopuses have three hearts and blue blood. They can squirt ink to obscure vision and then propel themselves with a jet of water for a quick escape.


Octopuses are also renowned escape artists in aquariums. In 2016, an octopus named Inky escaped from the National Aquarium of New Zealand all the way back to the ocean. Go Inky! His escape highlighted the intelligence and problem-solving abilities of octopuses, as well as their desire to be free from captivity. There are several great childrens’ books about Inky’s escape; my family’s favorite is: Inky’s Amazing Escape: How a Very Smart Octopus Found His Way Home.


A Look at the Octopus Across Cultures


In many cultures, the octopus symbolizes mystery, intelligence, adaptability and the power of the ocean. The ancient Greeks likened the octopus to the human psyche due to its intelligence and mysteriousness while in Japanese Ainu folklore, Akkorokamui, a giant octopus similar to the Nordic Kraken, symbolizes healing, regeneration and purification.


The Hawaiian creation myth features the octopus as the sole survivor of an earlier world. The Hawaiian god of the ocean, Kanaloa, often depicted as an octopus, symbolizes the mysterious depths of the ocean and underworld and healing. The Eye of Kanaloa is an emblem that represents the interconnectedness of all things and the importance and power of the ocean. It is said that this symbol can be seen by gazing into the eyes of the octopus.


In the cultures of the Tlingit and Haida tribes of the Pacific Northwest, the octopus represents intelligence, transformation and adaptability. They appear in totem poles and other art forms and are respected as kin. Most indigenous belief systems emphasize respecting all life forms as kin, which I believe is the most crucial paradigm shift that is needed today. What would it mean to behave responsibly toward all animals and maintain a reciprocal relationship in which we not only take from animals and nature but also give back? I think it would start with respect and gratitude, only taking what we need and finding a way to give back through conservation efforts, habitat protection and giving a voice to our animal kin.


Octopuses teach us about the complexities of intelligence, adaptability and non-verbal communication. They remind us to honor our differences as much as our similarities and to approach life with awe and admiration for the mysteries beyond our understanding. I encourage everyone to respect and give thanks to the octopus for their invaluable teachings.

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