For me, it was a momentous occasion.
I have always loved octopuses. No sci-fi alien is so startlingly strange. Here is someone who, even if she grows to one hundred pounds and stretches more than eight feet long, could still squeeze her boneless body through an opening the size of an orange; an animal whose eight arms are covered with thousands of suckers that taste as well as feel; a mollusk with a beak like a parrot and venom like a snake and a tongue covered with teeth; a creature who can shape-shift, change color, and squirt ink.
But most intriguing of all, recent research indicates that octopuses are remarkably intelligent. Not long ago, a question like this would have seemed foolish, if not crazy.
How can an octopus know anything, much less form an opinion? Octopuses are classified within the invertebrates in the mollusk family, and many mollusks, like clams, have no brain.
Only recently have scientists accorded chimpanzees, so closely related to humans we can share blood transfusions, the dignity of having a mind. But now, increasingly, researchers who study octopuses are convinced that these boneless, alien animals — creatures whose ancestors diverged from the lineage that would lead to ours roughly to million years ago — have developed intelligence, emotions, and individual personalities.
Their findings are challenging our understanding of consciousness itself. I had always longed to meet an octopus.
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Now was my chance: senior aquarist Scott Dowd arranged an introduction. If she consented, I could touch her. The heavy lid covering her tank separated our two worlds.
One world was mine and yours, the reality of air and land, where we lumber through life governed by a backbone and constrained by jointed limbs and gravity. The other world was hers, the reality of a nearly gelatinous being breathing water and moving weightlessly through it.
Regardless of whether they live on land or water, more than 95 percent of all animals are invertebrates, like Athena. The moment the lid was off, we reached for each other. She had already oozed from the far corner of her lair, where she had been hiding, to the top of the tank to investigate her visitor.
Her eight arms boiled up, twisting, slippery, to meet mine. I plunged both my arms elbow deep into the fifty-seven-degree water.
Her left eye octopuses have one dominant eye like humans have a dominant hand swiveled in its socket to meet mine. Each arm has more than two hundred of them. The famous naturalist and explorer William Beebe found the touch of the octopus repulsive. Although an octopus can taste with all of its skin, in the suckers both taste and touch are exquisitely developed. Athena was tasting me and feeling me at once, knowing my skin, and possibly the blood and bone beneath, in a way I could never fathom.
When I stroked her soft head with my fingertips, she changed color beneath my touch, her ruby-flecked skin going white and smooth. This, I learned, is a sign of a relaxed octopus. An agitated giant Pacific octopus turns red, its skin gets pimply, and it erects two papillae over the eyes, which some divers say look like horns.
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One volunteer who interacted with an octopus left the aquarium with arms covered in red hickeys. Occasionally an octopus takes a dislike to someone. Using his funnel, the siphon near the side of the head used to jet through the sea, Truman would shoot a soaking stream of salt water at this young woman whenever he got a chance. Later, she quit her volunteer position for college. Athena was remarkably gentle with me — even as she began to transfer her grip from her smaller, outer suckers to the larger ones.
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She seemed to be slowly but steadily pulling me into her tank. Had it been big enough to accommodate my body, I would have gone in willingly.
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But at this point, I asked Dowd if perhaps I should try to detach from some of the suckers. With his help, Athena and I pulled gently apart. I was honored that she appeared comfortable with me. But what did she know about me that informed her opinion? When Athena looked into my eyes, what was she thinking? She was working with two species: the California two-spot, with a head the size of a clementine, and the smaller, Florida species, Octopus joubini.
But her study subjects were constantly thwarting her.
The first problem was keeping the octopuses alive. The four-hundred-gallon tank was divided into separate compartments for each animal. But even though students hammered in dividers, the octopuses found ways to dig beneath them — and eat each other.
Octopuses die after mating and laying eggs, but first they go senile, acting like a person with dementia. One senile octopus crawled out of the tank, squeezed into a crack in the wall, dried up, and died.
It seemed to Warburton that some of the octopuses were purposely uncooperative. To run the T-maze, the pre-veterinary student had to scoop an animal from its tank with a net and transfer it to a bucket. With bucket firmly covered, octopus and researcher would take the elevator down to the room with the maze. Some octopuses did not like being removed from their tanks. They would hide. They would hold on to some object with their arms and not let go.
Some would let themselves be captured, only to use the net as a trampoline. Yes, run. Octopuses in captivity actually escape their watery enclosures with alarming frequency.
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While on the move, they have been discovered on carpets, along bookshelves, in a teapot, and inside the aquarium tanks of other fish — upon whom they have usually been dining. Even though the Middlebury octopuses were disaster prone, Warburton liked certain individuals very much. One of the joubini was such a problem they named her The Bitch.
It was awful! Then there was Wendy. Warburton used Wendy as part of her thesis presentation, a formal event that was videotaped.
First Wendy squirted salt water at her, drenching her nice suit. Then, as Warburton tried to show how octopuses use the T-maze, Wendy scurried to the bottom of the tank and hid in the sand.
Warburton says the whole debacle occurred because the octopus realized in advance what was going to happen. But Warburton learned far more than her experiments revealed. I know they watched me. I know they sometimes followed me.
But they are so different from anything we normally study. How do you prove the intelligence of someone so different? One yardstick scientists use is brain size, since humans have big brains. As is well known in electronics, anything can be miniaturized. Small brain size was the evidence once used to argue that birds were stupid — before some birds were proven intelligent enough to compose music, invent dance steps, ask questions, and do math.
Octopuses have the largest brains of any invertebrate. Another measure of intelligence: you can count neurons. The common octopus has about million of them in its brain. A human has billion. But this is where things get weird. One video online shows a mimic octopus alternately morphing into a flatfish, several sea snakes, and a lionfish by changing color, altering the texture of its skin, and shifting the position of its body. Another video shows an octopus materializing from a clump of algae.
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Its skin exactly matches the algae from which it seems to bloom — until it swims away. The deepest layer passively reflects background light. The topmost may contain the colors yellow, red, brown, and black. The middle layer shows an array of glittering blues, greens, and golds.
But how does an octopus decide what animal to mimic, what colors to turn? Scientists have no idea, especially given that octopuses are likely colorblind.
But new evidence suggests a breathtaking possibility. Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and University of Washington researchers found that the skin of the cuttlefish Sepia officinalis , a color-changing cousin of octopuses, contains gene sequences usually expressed only in the light-sensing retina of the eye.
In other words, cephalopods — octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid — may be able to see with their skin. Like dolphins, they can locate their prey using echoes. And a bat is a fellow mammal like us — not someone who tastes with its suckers, sees with its skin, and whose severed arms can wander about, each with a mind of its own. Breathing through a snorkel, she was watching Octopus vulgaris — the common octopus. In a relay with other students from six-thirty in the morning till six-thirty at night, Mather worked to find out.
A hunting expedition could take five minutes or three hours. The octopus would capture something, inject it with venom, and carry it home to eat.
A home, or den, which an octopus may occupy only a few days before switching to a new one, is a place where the shell-less octopus can safely hide: a hole in a rock, a discarded shell, or a cubbyhole in a sunken ship. One species, the Pacific red octopus, particularly likes to den in stubby, brown, glass beer bottles.