The Odd Life Of The Octopus

Cover image by Shutterstock/Henner Damke

The animal kingdom is teeming with oddballs. The star of today’s talk show on animal weirdos? The only and only octopus. This fascinating blob of flesh in the ocean is perhaps one of the smartest non-human animals out there. Scientifically classified into the group “mollusk” for its soft-bodied nature, this creature has been implicated in many fictional pieces – especially horror, alien films for its extraterrestrial appearance (and the fact that they have blue-colored blood). While scientists have sought to understand this mysterious eight-limbed being, they’ve discovered some pretty strange stuff.

The octopus is known for its witty nature. Here is a video of one using its smarts to steal crab from a fisherman. Video by BBC Earth.

One of the most frightening aspects of an octopus is its slimy tentacles used for pumping fiercely through the water and strangling prey to death. What might make these floppy arms even scarier is research indicating another function – that they may act as separate, little brains. Yes, on top of the main brain that makes up most of the octopus’ head, they have 8 mini-brains giving them a total of 9 brains. This could explain a lot of octopus behavior, especially those that display their intelligence. A study conducted by Gutnick et al. 2020 reveals how many actions, instead of circuiting via neurons to the brain, simply loop through individual limbs. This idea has long been hypothesized because of the weird anatomy of the octopus which mimics a giant mass of brain tissue. Anyway, the octopus having nine brains may not come as such a surprise when one finds out they have three hearts as well. Ah, the fascinating insides of an octopus.

“An Octopus has nine brains and three hearts.”

With more brains, comes more skills. It’s cute to see a chimpanzee asserting intelligence through puzzle-solving, but it’s doubly interesting to see a fleshy sea mass do the same. A study done about three decades ago, Fiorito et al. 1990, described the ability of the octopus to unplug glass jars to relish a meal of live crabs over a period of quick learning and problem-solving. Like many animals, they would do anything for food – and their advanced intelligence lets them go above and beyond. An ecology paper by Sampaio et al. (2020) shows octopi punching other fish that are hunting its food. This form of aggressive behavior is increasingly prevalent in highly competitive ecosystems.

A sequence of images showing the fish-punching behavior of the octopus, Octopus cyanea (Sampaio et al. 2020).

Okay, so maybe they’re weirdly skillful and a bit spiteful. With a little bit of party drugs, however, they just want some cuddles. Scientists affiliated with Johns Hopkins University wanted to test the degree of similarity between the octopus and human nervous systems by providing octopi with MDMA or informally known as ecstasy (Edsinger & Dölen 2018). They concluded that the normally curious octopus, once high, spent more time socializing with one another. Their observations described sober octopi as investigating toys and indulging in other learning behaviors while octopi knocked up with ecstasy became more touchy-feely, wrapping arms around each other. How is this sweet thing the subject of gruesome sci-fi movies?

Another fact that reveals the adorable side of the octopus is that baby octopi sometimes ride jellyfish to get to places. A Portugal study in the journal, Marine Biodiversity, discusses the event of a seven-armed octopus hopping onto a jellyfish for a ride. The researchers noticed that the octopus seemed to be in control of the jellyfish, even using the jelly’s tentacles to dangerously turn to the divers that were photographing the event. Argonauts – mini, floating octopus-like creatures – have also been known to use jellyfish for protection. 

An argonaut (mini octopus) riding a jellyfish. Image by Linda Ianniello.

This article doesn’t even begin to cover the crazy life of an octopus, let alone other odd-balls of nature. Who knows what other weird behavior we’re going to catch them doing? If you know something else about octopi that we missed, or of any other animal, let us know in the comments below!


References

Edsinger, E., & Dölen, G. (2018). A conserved role for serotonergic neurotransmission in mediating social behavior in octopus. Current Biology28(19), 3136-3142.

Ellenby, D. (2020, November). Do octopuses’ arms have a mind of their own? Science Daily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/11/201102120027.htm

Fiorito, G., von Planta, C., & Scotto, P. (1990). Problem solving ability of Octopus vulgaris lamarck (Mollusca, Cephalopoda). Behavioral and neural biology53(2), 217-230.

Gutnick, T., Zullo, L., Hochner, B., & Kuba, M. J. (2020). Use of peripheral sensory information for central nervous control of arm movement by Octopus vulgaris. Current Biology30(21), 4322-4327.

Octopuses on ecstasy just want a cuddle. (2018, September). Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06746-x

Pullano, N. (2020, July). Watch: The Scientific Reason Why Baby Octopuses Ride Jellyfish. Inverse. Retrieved from https://www.inverse.com/science/baby-octopus-jellyfish-rodeo

Rosa, R., Kelly, J. T., Lopes, V. M., Paula, J. R., Gonçalves, J., Calado, R., … & Barreiros, J. P. (2019). Deep-sea seven-arm octopus hijacks jellyfish in shallow waters. Marine Biodiversity49(1), 495-499.

Sampaio, E., Seco, M. C., Rosa, R., & Gingins, S. (2020). Octopuses punch fishes during collaborative interspecific hunting events. Ecology.

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