eye of the octopus

Folk U: The Eye Of The Octopus

[from the Archives: July 25, 2020]

On the July 10th Folk U Friday: (1) Lucretia Shanfarber talked more about the Cortes Garden Club and things she’s learned about no dig gardening from gardens on Cortes and Quadra. (2) The main feature was Michael Moore explaining the mysterious underwater world of octopuses.

Imagine yourself in the distant past, as a coastal dweller, wading knee deep in the ocean’s tide pools on a summer’s low tide afternoon. Bending down, you peer through the water searching for abalone, sea urchins, sea cucumber or rockfish stranded by the ebbing tide to make your evening meal. Suddenly your leg is encircled by an arm and held by suction cups. You jerk away and feel that the grip is strong. But then it lets you go and the arm retreats, to disappear under a rock where you can just see the eye of the octopus peering out.

For coastal peoples, the octopus was often personified as being evil. One of it’s monikers was the Devil Fish. It is a creature that has no fixed shape and it can change its colour and texture to hide away. It is covered with a clear viscous slime. Its eight arms are lined with hundreds of suction cups leading at the junction of the arms, to the beak that in some species like Australia’s blue ringed octopus, can deliver a lethal bite to humans. At sea, sailors in their fear inspired imaginations likely melded the octopus with its close cousin the giant squid to become awesome sea monsters such as the Kraken off of the coast of Norway. 

The largest octopus in the world live in the Salish Sea. Enteroctopus dofleini, the giant Pacific octopus can have an arm span of at least 7.3 m (24 ft) and weigh up to 72 Kg (160 lb). In the early 1980’s, Mike Moore worked as an octopus diver. The biggest one he caught was 89 lb and stretched 14 ft from tip to tip of its arms. “Back then” he says “we were just fishing for a living. Octopus are molluscs and we viewed them as nothing more than big clams or limpets.” In those days, there were only a few octopus divers on the coast and the majority of the catch was sold for bait in the halibut fishery.

We know now that octopus are intelligent. They have about the same number of neurons as a dog and a large brain for their body size. But what kind of intelligence do they have? What does their consciousness feel like? Octopus demonstrate a sense pf personality. About half of the octopus’ neurons are in its body. Its arms seem to be capable of making explorations and decisions which are independent from its brain. Its body has no hard structure and is able to squeeze through tiny holes, it is not constrained in its movements as are creatures with skeletons or shells. The octopus has well developed eyes but we think it is colour blind yet it can change the texture and colour of its skin for camouflage and to show emotion- does it “see” colours through its skin? “If we are going to understand aliens from outer space, we need to understand the octopus first” says Mike. “There is no more alien intelligence on earth. Everything else we consider intelligent like orca, elephants, ravens and parrots is a vertebrate.” 

Our last common ancestor with the octopus was a worm like creature 600 million years ago in the PreCambrian era.  And even though we are so distantly related to the octopus, it is intriguing to consider what attributes we do share, from camera type eyeballs and neural chemistry to curiosity and a sense of humour.

Top photo credit: Octopus off the coast of Vancouver Island by Adam Foster via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)