Common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab and Aquarium. Photo part of the Joel Sartore PhotoArk collection and used with permission.
One of the fun things at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab is they occasionally have octopus. There are several species of octopuses (being a Greek root word the plural is octopuses not octopi) and one normally found in the Panacea area is the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris). There is not a lot known about this fascinating creature but they do seem to possess intelligence and an ability to react to their environment beyond what we would normally consider to a mollusk to be capable of.
The octopus begins life as a carefully tended eggs washed with constant fresh flowing water by its mother. The egg hatches and the mystery begins. The baby octopus is very squid like in appearance. The mystery is what happens next. The tiny octopus vanishes from view and the younger stages of the organism are almost unknown. In spite of numerous attempts there are almost no successful culturing of these babies. They must have very specific dietary and environmental needs. I suspect they likely make their home in the sargassum sea weed beds much like young turtles do.
At some point they are big enough and have attained an adult form and they make their home on the bottom of the Gulf. They often learn how to raid crab traps and that is how the typically end up at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab. Local crabbers will pull up their trap and the octopus inside is unable to make its escape before the crab trap is up. Often the octopus are injured. The crabber then delivers the octopus to GSML.
Octopus have a short life span. Within a year they die. The octopus at GSML present a fascinating opportunity to observe this intelligent animal in action. I have two personal stories of the octopus of my own.
The first was a smaller male octopus who for some inexplicable reason appeared to take a fancy to me. I wanted to make sure that none of my interactions were about food and so I never fed the octopus nor was present when the person doing the feeding was there. I would come into the lab when a new octopus arrived and talk to them and wave. They would initially be very shy but after a period of not being harmed, they begin to relax and get curious about their surroundings. This little guy, after getting over his initial fright. reacted to the sight of me with appeared to be happy joyful recognition. He was far more interested in me than in any other person on staff. I think I know why. One day I bent over the water and he reached up and tied to grab my hair. So I lowered it down below the water and let him grab a lock. His reaction was astonishing.
After feeling the hair he flushed red, the colour they take before the fight, and he swam away. He was in a huff. From that day forward he refused to interact with me. If he was out visiting with tourists he would spot me and swim as fast as he good to the other side. What did I do? I think I offended him. I think he thought my long hair was some kind of tentacle and he was trying to communicate to me the way octopuses do by reaching and touching tentacles. I cheated and lied about who I was. That octopus never got over his huff. I have seen other octopuses get offended. One time a boy was commenting how ugly octopuses are, how disgusting, and the octopus responded by squirted him right in the face with a well place stream of water. The other octopuses soon learned how to do it as well and that year visitors got squirted on a regular basis. They learn by observation.
My second encounter was even stranger. In the wild octopuses decorate their caves with coloured shells, bright objects, and pretty rocks. In an effort to observe this behaviour we offered the octopuses a whole variety of things to play with. They had opportunities to play with beads, marbles, pool balls, and toys of all descriptions. One of the toys was a small plastic octopus. This bright red toy octopus resulted in many frenzied battles and a lot of theft and stealthy retrievals. They all wanted it and they all wanted it in front of their own home.
In order to check their reaction I purchased a variety of other toys and among them was a toy giraffe. I presented the toy giraffe and octopus took it and examined it very carefully and then very obviously and deliberately handed it back. If I were to put it into words I would say “No thank you, not interested in that.” While a tiny red octopus toy practically caused a war, the giraffe was just boring.
I wish I could say I figured them out. I didn’t. They are fascinating. They are intelligent. They adapt and learn and interact. But we don’t speak octopus and they haven’t learned to speak back. Someday….