Monday, December 14, 2009

Octopuses Garden


A recent article tweeted by NewScientist starred some seriously smart cephalopods using coconut shells as transportable habitats. NewScientist claimed documentation of first recorded tool use in invertebrates. Headlines blazoned: Octopuses use coconut shells as portable shelters.

Literally in a nutshell, some kooky Indonesian veined octopuses (Amphioctopus marginatus) were caught in flagrante, red-handed–er, make that red-tentacled—stilt-walking on camera. They were nuttily hunkering over the top of discarded coconut shells and acting rather bipedal. The coco-octos draped a few arm-legs over the sides of the coconut and scuttled along the barren sea floor with the rest of their legs, spider-like, taking their coco-domes with them.

It seems that some of the more creative types have gone all "Gilligan" and managed to use their lovely coconut half shells as an enclosed round house, comically spying out the crack. Just don't give them any duct tape!

There's a YouTube music video of one such octo-scuttler. Octopuses Carry Coconuts as Instant Shelters.

Personally, I think the theme music was a missed opportunity: they should have used I've got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts or Ringo's Octopuses Garden (because we know he can't be found), Gilligan's Island, or Monty Python's coconut-galloping Knights of Ni! as the theme song. (I originally had the Monterey Aquarium video embedded here but the link just disappeared. Stolen by a klepto-octopod?) Oh, give me a home where the coconuts roam...

For a silent video, go here. BBC now has a better version.

Whether you call them octopi (grammatically acceptable, but incorrect, as it's a Greek, not a Latin word), octopuses (much more fun to say), octopusses (more fun to spell) or octopodes (pedantic but politically correct), these eight-armed leg suckers have been using man-made shelters ever since the ancient Greeks sunk their amphorae-laden triremes off the Mediterranean coast. I assume the olive oil, fish sauce and wine escaped the amphorae pots without their help. But amphorae would be far too cumbersome for octopuses to drag around like mobile homes. It rather begs the question: what came first: the cephalopod or the shell?

Octopuses are molluscs—as are squid (we called them squidi-puses), cuttlefish, nautilus and fossil ammonites. These brainy molluscs sport a ring of tentacles circling their mouths, and use jet propulsion to "swim."

However, on the western shores of Northern California, our Pacific octopuses routinely decorate their dens with rickrack and shell middens but some enterprising octopuses opt for the more modular den—they set up their homes in handy manmade vessels. When we tramped under the piers of the real Cannery Row in the early 1970s (not today's tourist trap. The real Doc Ricketts lab at 800 Cannery Row was still in situ), we found plenty evidence of octopuses using tools.

Doc Ricketts, Steinbeck's real model for Doc in Cannery Row, preached the idea, dubbed the "toto picture" that all life was holistic and inter-related, from sardines to tourists. Or in this case, the relationship of fishermen's morning coffee to octopus abodes. We used to find little octopuses huddled under the docks in tin cans—they especially liked the tall red Folder's coffee cans.

A trailer parkload of tin cans were strategically spaced in the rich tidepools beneath the piers of Cannery Row. But I suspect the octopuses did move their homes about, as they were quite territorial over their abodes beneath the docks. It must've been a real all-you-can-eat smorgy beneath those piers come herring season.

Maybe it was the red paint that attracted the octopuses, or they were seriously seeking a contact high of morning java jolt. Whether or not they moved their mobile homes to happier hunting grounds once the herring industry failed in Cannery Row, has never been documented.

* * *

Octopuses are indeed cognitively sophisticated (the smartest of all invertebrates—with the brainy equivalence of a smart dog or cat)—so say marine biologists. Octopuses are also as adept as inquisitive Jack Russell terriers are for getting into all kinds of mischief. Many octopus-keepers have been reduced to octo-turnkeys. In the early 1980s—I was teaching Sonoma County history, creativity and art classes to Elderhostel folks in Bodega Bay in Northern CA, where I met one such marine biologist cum-jailer.

During a field trip to the Bodega Bay Marine Lab, a resident marine biologist introduced us to northern California marine life and one rather peckish Pacific octopus who was such a famous escape artist, the staff had nicknamed him Houdini. No famous capture story. They found him huddled in a coffee can and brought him home to the lab and tucked him in to one of the spare aquariums.

Fish and invertebrate specimens began disappearing from the aquarium tanks at night, and biologists couldn't figure out who—or what—the culprit was. Not only that, some lackey intern had gone and put the octopus in the wrong tank again. Denials were passed all around. Not me. Not me! said the resident interns. Who, then? Houdini, himself, that's who.

A little night sleuthing was in order. A night watchman was posted. Enter the magician, Houdini—who crawled up out of his aquarium tank and down the side, scuttled across the cement floor and up the stands to the other tanks, and after he'd helped himself to the captive fish smorgy, he returned to his own tank. Or not, depending on his mood.

Biologists tried placing chickenwire, nets, then glass on top of the late-night-snacker's tank, to thwart his midnight raids, to no avail. In the morning, they found the other tanks had been raided, occupants ingested.

The score was: one small Octopus - 8: several large marine biologists - well, let's just say, they really sucked.

Finally the biologists placed a 4 x8' piece of plywood over Houdini's tank. Next morning they found him huddled in a corner puddle in the lab. The bugger had gotten out again, but how? They examined the plywood for flaws. What they found was a small quarter-sized knothole just the size of an octopus beak and he'd managed to squeeze himself out of it.

Surely it wasn't possible. His eyeballs were bigger than the hole—that means he had to squeeze himself, his big eyes (one by one, I presume—POP! POP!) followed by his huge mantle and brain through that tiny hole. Talk about an elastic mind. They covered up the hole up with a brick, but a few nights later, the larder was again raided. But this time, there was no octopus in his tank. This time, Houdini was really busted. Apparently he couldn't get back into his tank, having eaten a large fish or two too many. Or so the story goes.

The marine biologists resorted to using a heavy-grade outdoor plywood as a lid (no knotholes) weighted down with four cinder bricks to keep the errant octopus locked down in his own garden of earthly delights.

That settled the score: marine biologists - 1. Octopus - peckish.

But the marine biologist joked that the now firmly incarcerated Houdini was depressed—he wasn't playing with any of his floaty toys.


As we all observed Houdini, safely locked in his hefty prison of a tank, he changed colors—it was as if he knew we were talking about him. He went from his usual camo duds—a neutral speckled skin—to a tie-dye blushing color, then to a liver-red verging on black... I'm not sure, but I think he was pissed off. Maybe someone should do a study on octopus chromatophores, behavior and emotion... I'm positive he was off sulking in a black rage.

A pity there was no HDTV around in those days to babysit Houdini; the boobtube tuned to to Animal Planet could've pacified some of his baser instincts. Who knew octopuses would be so excited over viewing a little soft fish porn on HDTV? BTW, analog TV just won't do. They know the difference.

Double-click to enlarge.

I don't recall if Houdini was a Pacific giant octopus, if so, he was a youngster as his arms were only about 2 feet long stretched out. Giant octopuses, with arms as long as six to eight feet, live two to three times as long (3.5 to 4 years) as their cousins— the other 159 species of cephalopods— and they also seem to be the mental giants of the mollusca crowd.


Here's a story about a peckish red octopus stowaway at the Monterey Aquarium and his year-long midnight crabfest and how he was busted—caught, er, red-handed by a security guard at 3 AM. To be an octopus's jailer is a thankless task.