O is for Octopus
I adore octopuses – the most intelligent of invertebrates, their intelligence rivals that of the most intelligent primates. Here is a fabulous painting of one by Dru Marland – this is from a rather wonderful, fully illustrated book of poems, Inking Bitterns, available only from Gert Macky which I highly recommend, not just because I’m in it!
The painting and the photo below shows the octopus’s syphon tube through which it shoots out the water that has been through its gills. It can shoot this water out in a jet to escape at top speed, and it is also through this that it jets its ink to numb the senses of and confuse predators. The photo was taken by Arnaud Abadie:
Octopuses (cephalopods) first appeared on Earth around 296 MILLION years ago – before the very first dinosaurs. And they still have much the same form. So it’s not surprising really that they have involved high intelligence to make the best use of their environment.
In fact, an octopus is extremely brainy in every part, having 9 brains altogether – it has 2/3 of its neurones in its arms, and they can problem solve all on their own while their owner gets on with other pressing matters.
Octopus (and squid) eyes have lenses and muscles and they have excellent sight – but they have evolved separately from our eyes in a process called convergent evolution (where the same answer to a problem has been achieved by different steps and by completely unrelated animals). In fact, their eyes are better than ours in that they have no blind spot.
They have 3 hearts, two to pump blood to the gills, and one to pump blood round the rest of the body. This heart stops beating when the octopus swims, which explains why they are so often seen crawling over the ocean floor rather than swimming, as this tires them.
Mainly muscle, their bodies can squeeze through tiny spaces, and as long as their beak can fit through, so can they, which means a 50 pound octopus can get through a two inch hole.
So why are they recognised as being intelligent? Lots of reasons. A group of scientists studying octopuses were baffled by the fact that overnight, specimens kept in the laboratory in another tank from the octopus disappeared. They set up a camera and saw the octopus, recognising when they had gone home for the night, opening and climbing out of its own tank, across the laboratory, and eating the creatures in the other tank in the room.
They can quickly learn by watching a person or another octopus, things like how to unscrew and open many different types of container to retrieve what’s inside.
They have been seen on the ocean floor collecting two halves of a large coconut shell, walking with them to another area and using the shell to hide inside.
They are masters of camouflage, changing instantly to merge in with any type of background, and can also use their arms and body to mimic other species – either a predator to avoid a predator of their own, or a harmless creature, so they can sneak up on prey. They have even been seen hiding down a hole, leaving one waving tentacle looking like a worm, as ‘bait’.
Have a look at this – you will be amazed!
And of course the last interesting fact I’m going to tell you (although I could go on and on!) is that they have blue blood as it is based on copper instead of iron. This helps them survive in the deep sea – but also means they are very sensitive to lowering PH levels in the water. As climate change progresses, the sea is becoming more acidic, and scientists are very concerned about octopuses and how they will survive. Various species of coral that are also harmed by acidification are already in trouble.
This just in – a link to a Washington Post article “Octopus slips out of aquarium tank, crawls across floor, escapes down pipe to ocean”. Imagine – a creature with that intelligence, being trapped in a tank, wanting to be able to escape – waiting to and planning its escape… It has to be cruel to keep one in an aquarium.
Here is my octopus poem – this is one of the first poems I had published, in a book called ‘Elephants Can’t Jump’, compiled by Brian Moses, pub. Belitha Press, 2001. I’m afraid I’ve had to make this on Word, and my hand isn’t steady enough to draw with the pen tool with a mouse, so it isn’t brilliant…
© Liz Brownlee
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Prose and Poem and shape-drawing © Liz Brownlee, all rights reserved, not to be used in any manner whatsoever without the permission of the author.