5 Things You Might Not Know About Octopuses

Jul 30, 2015

The mighty octopus features heavily in science fiction stories, playing the part of creepy creature from the deep, from H.P. Lovecraft’s octopus/dragon/man hybrid Cthulhu to the mass of tentacles described by H.G. Wells in his short story "The Sea Raiders":

“Their bodies lay flatly on the rocks, and their eyes regarded him with evil interest: but it does not appear that Mr. Fison was afraid, or that he realized that he was in any danger. Possibly his confidence is to be ascribed to the limpness of their attitudes. But he was horrified, of course, and intensely excited and indignant at such revolting creatures preying upon human flesh. He thought they had chanced upon a drowned body. He shouted to them, with the idea of driving them off, and, finding they did not budge, cast about him, picked up a big rounded lump of rock, and flung it at one.

And then, slowly uncoiling their tentacles, they all began moving towards him - creeping at first deliberately, and making a soft purring sound to each other.”

And then, slowly uncoiling their tentacles, they all began moving towards him - creeping at first deliberately, and making a soft purring sound to each other.

  The octopus is a highly intelligent creature and does have the means to do some damage--saliva that can melt skin, tongue covered in teeth, the pressure from their suckers can tear flesh--but perhaps if we get to know them a bit better we’ll see they’re not so scary after all. After speaking with Sy Montgomery about her new book, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, we discovered a few things we didn't know about these misunderstood creatures. Listen to the interview with Virginia and make friends with a cephalopod. 

1. The plural of octopus is octopuses, not octopi

We were all a little surprised by this, maybe because it just sounds better to say octopi. The word octopus comes from ancient Greek, so technically the plural would be octopodes, but that’s an extremely rare usage. It gets more complicated when you realize that the word’s journey to English came via scientific Latin, which borrowed it from the Greek. Etymology might be more daunting than encountering an octopus. Ultimately, you can still say octopi because at this point it has entered our lexicon and even the Oxford English Dictionary recognizes it as a valid pluralization of the word.

Bottom line: If you say: “Hey! There’s a whole bunch of octopuses swimming towards us! Let’s invite them to our beach party!” Don’t let anyone correct you.

2. An octopus changes color based on mood

If you are one of the millions of people who saw Jurassic World you may remember a scene in which the owner of the park, upon seeing indominus rex for the first time exclaims, “Oh it’s white. You never told me it was white.” SPOILER ALERT: indominus rex is not real. Also, it is a gene splicing cocktail of creatures, including the master of disguise, the cuttlefish. Which means that the octopus is just one degree of separation from a fictional dinosaur in a scientifically inaccurate movie.

Sy Montgomery described her personal experience with the octopus Athena, who let her know she was calm by turning white.

“As I stroke her with my fingertips, her skin goes white beneath my touch. Later, I learn this is the color of a relaxed octopus; in cuttlefish, close relatives of octopus, females turn white when they encounter a fellow female, someone who they need not fight or flee."

They can actually turn all sorts of colors:

"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."

Here's an example of its masterful skills of deception:

Science Friday gives a more detailed explanation, they can change their skin texture!:

As I stroke her with my fingertips, her skin goes white beneath my touch.

Does the fact that indominus rex was white in that scene mean she was calm? We're going to say yes because SPOILER ALERT! She is about to escape. Which is a lovely segue to our next fun fact:

3. Octopuses are master escape artists

If you’ve ever seen this video…

…you are no doubt aware that octopuses are amazingly skilled in the art of escaping. Here is another example.

4. The giant Pacific octopus grows SUPER fast

In fact, according to Sy: 

"The giant Pacific octopus is one of the fastest-growing animals on the planet. Hatching from an egg the size of a grain of rice, one can grow both longer and heavier than a man in three years."

Octopuses don't live particularly long, the life-span of giant Pacific octopuses is about three years. They mate at the far end of their life span, and after agreeing to mate--octopuses are notoriously finicky--after the eggs are laid, the octopus dies. The octopus just doesn't have time to leisurely grow.

Hatching from an egg the size of a grain of rice, one can grow both longer and heavier than a man in three years.

5. Octopuses have a dominant eye 

Humans have a dominant hand, but octopuses can be right-eyed or left-eyed, as Sy explains when she meets her 8-legged friend Athena for the first time.

"Her melon-sized head bobs to the surface, and her left eye—octopuses have a dominant eye, as people have dominant hands—swivels in its socket to meet mine."

Another fun fact about the eyes of an octopus, even though they are color blind they're able to match their skin color to the environment around them and nobody knows why. 

Related: Read an excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Soul of an Octopus