International Diver Magazine

WORLD OCTOPUS DAY

Since our earliest days at sea, the elusive octopus has captivated our hearts and minds. The oldest octopus fossil is from 300 million years ago, predating dinosaurs by millions of years. Seafaring and coastal folklore contain stories of octopus and their cephalopod cousins, known as the kraken and cecaelia to them. With eight semi-autonomous arms, more than 1,000 suckers, blue copper-rich blood, three beating hearts, and surreal intelligence, the octopus is unlike any other animal on our planet. They are mysterious, talented, and highly advanced creatures. Today, on October 8th, our octopus friends deserve a celebration in honor of what makes them unique.

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The octopus is a highly developed mollusk belonging to the class Cephalopoda. Unlike the shelled mollusks we are accustomed to today, octopuses have internalized their shell or have lost it all together. They are found in all the world’s oceans, inhabiting all ecosystems from shallow reefs to hydrothermal vents. Majority of octopuses will live solitary lifestyles, although in rare occasions octopuses have been seen socializing or hunting together. Some species live for several years, while others only a few months, mating only once in their lifetime. A female can lay up to 400,000 eggs, which she protects and guards, even as she starves to death. 

Octopuses have an unbelievable talent when it comes to camouflage. They can change the color and texture of their appearance in a few tenths of a second. All species have skin made up of three layers, with the color changing chromatophores on the outermost layer. Underneath, they have various cells that reflect ambient light and create polarized, colorful patterns. They produce complex visual displays, changing color across spaces and time. What may come as a huge surprise is that octopuses are colorblind! They may be colorblind, but their eyes contain photoreceptors that detect polarized light we are unable to see. It is hypothesized that they communicate with one another privately through the polarized reflective patterns in their skin.

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Octopuses come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. They have evolved to possess some very impressive traits. The giant Pacific octopus is the largest of all octopuses, with the largest specimen reaching 30 feet across and weighing more than 600 pounds; the Atlantic pygmy octopus grows up to a tiny, five inches, making it one of the tiniest species of octopus in the world. The mimic octopus, a master of disguise, will flawlessly camouflage or as its name implies, “mimic” other creatures. On the other hand, the blue-ringed octopus makes its presence known with striking electric blue rings. With these bright, psychedelic rings, it warns predators about its lethal venom. While all octopuses have venom in their saliva, most do not harm people. But, venom from the blue-ringed octopus can paralyze a human in just minutes. Unlike other species, they will fight for food or shelter, making it one of the most aggressive species of octopus in the world. Easily some of the most magical octopuses belong to the Grimpoteuthis genus, known as the dumbo octopus. This tiny, deep sea species has large, rounded fins on its body, resembling Disney’s Dumbo’s ears. These unique fins used for swimming, give the octopus the appearance of flying so gracefully through the deep ocean waters. There is truly an octopus species for every person to love.

You can’t mention anything pertaining to octopus without taking a moment to marvel at their intelligence. Octopuses are also one of the most sophisticated animals in the animal kingdom regarding intelligence. They have evolved larger nervous systems and greater cognitive complexity than any other invertebrate. When you start to look at their capabilities, they share many similarities with vertebrates. They have advanced learning capacity, long and short-term memory, and similar sleep behavior. In aquariums, they have been observed recognizing certain keepers or distinguishing individual people even when wearing the same uniform. Scientists have observed them using tools, like humans, chimpanzees, and dolphins. Not only are octopus intelligent, but they are curious and playful. There are countless stories of an octopus breaking out of their tanks or squirting researchers with water. They are not only intelligent but irrationally endearing.

In coastal communities worldwide, numerous species are economically and culturally important. Octopus are fished commercially and recreationally, and it is estimated that more than 50,000 tons of octopus are caught each year. Despite their value and exploitation, octopus are often left out of conservation efforts. In the past decade, populations are threatened due to pollution, overfishing, and habitat destruction. This has resulted in several species becoming the focus of increased research, education, and conservation. 

Compared to other marine organisms, we know very little about several octopus species, their behaviors, and the current state of their populations. There are several groups changing the way the world understands and protects octopuses. The Octopus Research & Observation Center, “OCTOROCK,” is based in Kona, Hawaii (https://www.silverspiralseas.com/octorock/). Octopus are extremely difficult to document and observe in the wild due to ocean conditions, expenses, and their elusive, sensitive nature. With a dream to understand this creature more and share it with the world, OCTOROCK was born. At this unique studio, scientists, students, photographers, and film-makers can have access to octopus in near-natural conditions. Several aquariums, including the Seattle Aquarium, are committed to investigating the reproductive and social behavior of octopus (https://www.seattleaquarium.org/). Each year they facilitate mating between adult giant Pacific octopuses. As a critical species to North Pacific ecosystems, they release the female into the surrounding waters where she can hatch and protect her eggs. With more research and knowledge, we can understand how to better manage and protect these beautiful animals.

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To get the chance to see an octopus in the wild is truly spectacular. The more you know about the octopus, the more you grow to love and appreciate them. While the octopus has existed in our oceans for millions of years, there is still so much to learn about these elusive creatures. Looking at the octopus is looking at our past. By understanding their cognitive abilities, we can more deeply understand our own. If there is one thing we can all learn from an octopus on World Octopus Day, it is to stay unique and be a little strange. The octopus is enough to make us all believe in aliens or magic. So today, let us cheers to our favorite eight-armed friend…Happy World Octopus Day!

Reprinted with permission from International Diver Magazine https://www.internationaldivermag.com/indiver/world-octopus-day