Octopuses can teach us a lot

This past fall I found myself walking along the beach in the Gulf of Mexico searching for sea-shells and stumbled on an octopus at the edge of the tide. It was the first time I had ever seen the fascinating creature outside of the aquarium, and I almost instantly felt a rush of excitement. I knelt down beside it as it lay still in the sand and proceeded to gently poke it with my index finger. To my surprise, the octopus jolted to life and flung one of its arms around my finger. I could feel the suction cups clamp onto my skin, and assumed it too must be investigating me. After some time I guided it into the ocean and we went our separate ways. I was simply enamored the rest of the day. 

The octopus I interacted with at Fort De Soto in St. Petersburg, Florida. Credit: Justin Varholick

Without being a biologist, almost everyone can recognize that Octopuses are something special. With eight legs of suckers and a giant head (or, cephal) they look like they are from another planet. But even though they are uniquely interesting, are known to sometimes befriend divers, and can range from less than an inch long to possibly kraken size, science knows very little about these creatures compared to other animals like mice, rats, fruit flies, worms, etc. Why has the octopus been left out?

Unfortunately, octopuses have unfavorable habits: they sometimes practice cannibalism,  are notorious escape artists, and the females die during reproduction. All together, this can make it hard to build up a breeding population. But recently, scientists at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts have seemingly overcome these issues. In fact, they have been able to breed a zebra-striped octopus for three generations and discovered that the mothers of this specific genus can reproduce multiple times in their lifetime. Now for the escaping issue, they’ve also discovered that lining the top of the tank walls with velcro or astro-turf and high tech devices like bricks or heavy stones on top of the lid can prevent any escapes. Such breakthroughs, although somewhat minor, can accelerate our understanding of octopuses like never before.

A zebra-striped octopus after hatching, Credit: Tim Briggs

But what can a colony of octopuses really teach us? 

The most obvious thing octopuses can teach us relates to the evolution of their nervous system and problem solving skills. Octopuses are seemingly one of the most intelligent animals on our planet that are not mammals, and our closest ancestor is twice as ancient as the first dinosaurs. This makes them the closest we can come to meeting an intelligent alien on our own planet. Such studies on their nervous system indicate that most of the neurons in their body are found in their arms rather than their head, as in humans. In fact, each arm seems curiously divorced from their brain, able to independently move. With these arms and brain, they can solve simple mazes, discriminate with visual cues, unscrew jars, recognize different humans, and even play with non-food objects in their tank. 

But their fascinating characteristics don’t stop with their nervous system. They can also change the color of their skin. And they evolved from mollusks with the loss of their shell, providing a great model to understand shell loss in evolution. Some scientists are even interested in studying octopuses to make more efficient robots

An old field guide, “Sea Shells of the World” from 1962; cephalopods are mollusks, see the paper shell of argonauts

Thus, a whole lot can be learned by studying octopuses. And now, thanks to scientists at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, we are able to start really understanding all of their fascinating aspects and the biology underlying them.

-Justin A. Varholick, Ph.D.