It started one year when we went to Puglia in Italy. I remember relaxing on an off the beaten track beach watching the locals attempt to capture Octopus. Incredibly some did. They spent many minutes bashing the Octopus on the surrounding rocks before eating them raw. I was totally bemused. What were they doing? It seemed brutal. Unlike us and the concentration in our brain, Neurons (effectively brain cells) of the Octopus are mostly spread across the tentacles subsisting below the surface of the skin. It turns out that in conjunction with nerve endings, a tentacle can operate independently even if the brain is dead or the tentacle is detached from the rest of the body. So the theory suggests you can eat a tentacle and if the nerves are not fractured it will try to claw itself back out of your throat…..hmmmm. This is what the locals knew; patiently taking time to thwart this ingenious will to survive. And this knowledge is understood by the rest of the animal kingdom as video footage displays Dolphins throwing Octopus between members of the group to shatter the nervous network before they too have their lunch.
Since a child I have had a certain fondness for the Elephant to the point where I collect random elephant statues whenever I travel, in recent years, I have become enchanted with the Octopus.
And what’s not to be fascinated by. We believe c300 types of Octopus have been in existence for more than half a billion years whilst we have drawn breathe for c200,000 years. But we are of the opinion they have evolved very slowly and inexplicably have a short life expectancy between 6 months to 5 years. Octopodes (apparently Octopi is not the correct plural but it is interchanged with Octopuses in texts) can differ in size ranging from a few centimetres in length to giants that typically measure 5m across but have been known to grow to 10m. Certain members of the family have separate tentacles and others have webbing in-between which gives them a gown like appearance. An Octopus has three hearts (one to disseminate blood and the others to pick up oxygen). They circulate blue blood (because copper is more effective in carrying oxygen in cold and low oxygen environments unlike our iron rich blood). Octopodes have no bones enabling them to squeeze through insignificant gaps with the single toughened part of their body; a sharp beak; through which a shot of venom can be ejected, and not just a small dose. A blue ringed Octopus carries enough venom to kill 26 humans.
These Cephalopods use tools to camouflage themselves, open jars, solve puzzles and some evidence suggests they learn by observation. The species are thought to be highly intelligent. Well we all remember Paul the Octopus who accurately predicted the results of several of the 2010 football world cup matches! One of the most startling videos I have viewed is the instantaneous colour changes an Octopus can undergo. As explained by the Natural History museum, UK : ‘Thousands of specialised cells under their skin, called chromatophores, help them to change colour in an instant. In addition, they have papillae — tiny areas of skin that they can expand or retract to rapidly change the texture of their skin to match their surroundings’. Essentially Octopus can camouflage as the environment dictates, disappearing into fauna or coral although recent research captured an Octopus alternating colours whilst sleeping — what is the implication of that, dreaming and brain activity? The Natural History website goes on to describe a type of Octopus which rather than mimic its surroundings, ‘shape shifts’ itself into a predator such as a Lionfish or a Sea snake.
Octopodes not surprisingly are influencing biomedical engineering advances. The ability to change colour and texture has inspired the creation of a stretchy skin. A study is analysing the high rates of RNA editing Octopus are capable of. RNA are messages sent from DNA which informs genes of what and when to undertake an action granting a quick response to problems; skirting the need for long-term DNA changes which is how evolution generally proceeds. It could account for why Octopodes have evolved so gently over the time they have existed on Earth.
These invertebrates have learnt to squirt ink to irritate and disorientate predators or game. But you might wonder how they eat prey especially those with a fortified shell such as Crab. Octopus use the suckers on strong tentacles to grapple and grasp then utilise their beaks to drill through the rigid shell — usually very precisely, enabling them to administer venom directly into the soft body to paralyse or kill their quarry. It is also through these suction cups on the tentacle that the Octopus can ‘taste’ what it is consuming.
Octopodes appear to be anti social but able to recognise and show affection. The documentary My Octopus Teacher is well worth the time if you are as fascinated by these creatures. Aside from seeming to build a friendship with a human visitor we learn that following mating the clock is set for death. The male swims away post copulation dying a few months later. Females lay c200–400,000 eggs and guard them possessively without shifting from their position until the eggs hatch. This can take months to a year. As she doesn’t eat during this time, her body is ravaged until it is eventually too weak to continue. I dare you not to be sobbing as you bear witness to the life of this enthralling creature.