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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Befriending An Octopus

Air Date: Week of

(Photo: Tonly LaCasse)

Octopuses may have small brains, but scientists believe they are intelligent creatures with distinct personalities. Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood and environmental writer Sy Montgomery went behind the exhibits at the New England Aquarium and wrapped their arms around Octavia, a giant Pacific octopus.


GELLERMAN: It's Living On Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: On an unseasonably warm November day, Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood visited the New England Aquarium. There he met up with environmental writer Sy Montgomery, who has a new best friend.

CURWOOD: Now, Sy Montgomery, you’ve written a lot about really smart animals, in fact, you had one live with you; his name was Christopher Hogwood, he was a pig. And then when you went to the Amazon, you met these pink dolphins. I think maybe you fell in love with one of the pink dolphins, too.

MONTGOMERY: Oh, I think I fell in love with all of the pink dolphins, Steve!

CURWOOD: (laughs) And of course, there are the Golden Moon Bears that you tracked down in Southeast Asia, all very smart. And today we’re at the New England Aquarium to meet another very smart animal, you tell us. And that would be a …

MONTGOMERY: A Giant Pacific Octopus.

Living on Earth's Steve Curwood with author Sy Montgomery.

CURWOOD: Uh, octopus? Just one though?

MONTGOMERY: Yes. The problem is, if you put two together, they tend to eat each other.

CURWOOD: And more than one octopus … do you say octopuses, octopi, octope, what do you do?

MONTGOMERY: Unfortunately, it’s now octopuses. It’s because the plural - octopi - did not go with the origin of the word octopus, and so it’s supposed to be octopuses.

CURWOOD: Huh. So, who are we going to meet today, Sy?

MONTGOMERY: We are going to meet a Giant Pacific Octopus named Octavia.

CURWOOD: Octavia. And this isn’t, of course, your first time encountering these animals.

Octavia rises out of her tank. (Photo: Tony LaCasse)

MONTGOMERY: Well, no. I got to know Octavia’s predecessor, whose name was Athena. I visited her three times. Athena, when we first met, it was the most amazing thing. She started coiling up from her exhibit - her arms started coming out and I plunged my arms into the 57-degree water, which is actually very cold, and immediately we were just embracing each other. Her suckers were all over me. I was petting her beautiful head, and I would notice that her skin would turn light colored right underneath my touch.

CURWOOD: No way.

MONTGOMERY: And I knew that that’s the sign of a contented octopus. An unhappy, angry octopus turns red and gets all pimply. But she was showing her contentment and letting me touch her head. And after the encounter, which went on for awhile, I was told by the wonderful folks at the New England Aquarium, they said, ‘this is very unusual for an octopus to let someone - a stranger like you - touch her head.’ So we had an immediate bond.

But I just met Octavia last Friday, and just from my short encounter with her, I can tell you she’s very, very different from her predecessor, who was very different from her predecessor, who was different from his predecessor. They all are quite distinctive, just like we are, which is so surprising. These are, I think, the most surprising creatures, because unlike us, they are completely without any bones - they are so unrelated to us in anyway - and yet, you can have a meaningful interaction with them. And that just blows my mind. I think you’re going to love this.

Many arms and a couple of hands. (Photo: Tony LaCasse)

CURWOOD: Okay, well, let’s go inside.



CURWOOD: We head inside the aquarium, past the information desk, and up some stairs. We go behind the labyrinth of exhibits and into a room full of tanks.

[MUSIC: Yellowdubmarine “Octopus’s Garden” from Abbey Dub (Gold Lion records 2011)]

CURWOOD: This is a favorite place of staff biologist Bill Murphy. So, Bill Murphy, this is your tank. This is your octopus. This is your world here.

Steve Curwood and aquarium biologist Bill Murphy.
(Photo: Eileen Bolinsky)

MURPHY: Yes it is. So, come on back. This is the octopus tank right over here with the lid on it.

CURWOOD: Now, let's see, scientifically this is known as a cephalopod, in other words, a head and foot type of thing?

MURPHY: Yes, correct.

CURWOOD: But, there are no bones in this. It’s completely invertebrate.

MURPHY: Yes, the only hard part of it is its beak.

CURWOOD: Which is kind of like what?

MURPHY: It’s kind of like a parrot’s beak.

CURWOOD: Yeah? So what’s really unusual about octopuses aside from the fact that they have eight arms, which we don’t and the fact that they don’t have any bones and we do… they’re smart though, like us, I’m told.

MURPHY: Yes, they’re very intelligent. They’re also very curious, which also leads to, I would say, partly, their intelligence.

CURWOOD: So, just how smart is an octopus?

MURPHY: Well, they can open locked boxes, which we do here at the aquarium. They can open pill bottles, they can turn valves, they can turn knobs, they can crawl through a tube to get to food - if they see food on the other side of the tank they’ll try and go towards it. There’s been an experience that I’ve heard about where if an octopus knows how to do a puzzle and opened the box before, and another octopus is right next to it and does not, the other octopus will actually watch the one octopus who knows how to do it open it and then learn it immediately. So, they can observe and then learn.

CURWOOD: Now, if the two octopuses are together observing, what about the risk of getting eaten by the other octopus?

MURPHY: They were separated. They were in different tanks, so they could see each other but they couldn’t get to each other.

CURWOOD: Ah, Okay. Sy, you told me that octopuses don’t really get along with each other very well.

MONTGOMERY: Yeah, that's kind of too bad. It’s one reason why I don’t think any aquarium has yet bred them in captivity, because they tend to eat each other.

CURWOOD: Yeah, what is this about octopuses not liking each other?

MURPHY: I think it’s just more of also the aggressiveness of their attitude. When you're you’re living on own, fighting to survive, adding another octopus in there competing for the same source is just not a good thing.

CURWOOD: Ok, so how do they reproduce if they don’t get along?

MURPHY: That comes at a time in their life - they reach a lifecycle where they’re ready to reproduce - the females are ready to lay eggs and mate, the males have reached their maturity and they're ready to mate and then move on. And the male still has to appease the female. He still has to do his dance, and she still has to accept him for them to mate, and then for them to move on, and then she’ll lay her eggs, and spend the rest of her life’s energy making sure those eggs stay safe and protected and hatch.

CURWOOD: So, she doesn’t live long after she lays eggs.

MURPHY: Correct. So, once they lay eggs once, that’s it for them.

CURWOOD: So, an octopus will have how many young?

Octavia in her tank. (Photo: Tony LaCasse)

MURPHY: Thousands. They lay strands of eggs that look like grains of rice and they’ll have probably easily a thousand eggs, if not more. And most of them will hatch, but it’s also the law of the wild - you lay a lot and produce a lot of offspring, but only a few will survive due to predators and food.

MONTGOMERY: How would you describe how Octavia differs from all the others, since every one is an individual?

MURPHY: She’s a little more picky. She came to us probably a little bit older than what we normally get our octopuses, because the one before her, Athena, died unexpectedly. So we got one from the wild - from a collector - that we talk to a lot. So she’s straight from the wild, and a little bit larger and more used to the wild of nature than other ones are.

MONTGOMERY: How much do you think she weighs and how big do you think she is?

MURPHY: Ah, she’s probably about 40 pounds. And if we stand her up, she’s probably about four and a half feet. She still has another year and a half - I’d say- to grow.

CURWOOD: Wow. Alright. And Bill, I guess you’re the one really to take us to meet her, anything that I should say or do?

MURPHY: Roll up your sleeves; take off your watch. We always joke that they’re very sticky fingers so they could probably slip off a ring or a watch without you realizing it, but also, we don’t want anything sharp on ourselves that would hurt them.

MONTGOMERY: I was wondering if there is anything that she would like to have as a gift, and I brought in two shells and a rock for you to inspect to see if that was something she might enjoy or if it would be safe. Would you be willing to look at it?

MURPHY: I'll take a look at them, but it’d be up to her whether she enjoys them or not.

CURWOOD: Alright, well, now’s the moment. Do we get to meet her?

MURPHY: Yes, you do! Step right over this way…

[MUSIC: Yellowdubmarine “Octopus’s Garden” from Abbey Dub (Gold Lion records 2011)]

MURPHY: This is our volunteer, Wilson, he’s been with us for many, many, many, many years!

MONTGOMERY: Look her beautiful arm is out!

MURPHY: And there she is.

MONTGOMERY: Oh let's touch her! Can I touch her?

MURPHY: Go for it!

MONTGOMERY: Hi, darlin’. Oh, man, stick your hand up here. Oh my god, this is great!

CURWOOD: Very sticky!

MONTGOMERY: She’s very excited about … these delicious capelin, yum! And, there they are going right down into her mouth! Oh, she’s beautiful!


MONTGOMERY: I’ve got three arms on me.

CURWOOD: She’s grabbing a hold, here.

MONTGOMERY: Do you feel the suckers?

CURWOOD: Yup, feel the suckers…

MONTGOMERY: She’s tasting you with these, as well as feeling you!

CURWOOD: She can control each one of these suckers individually! Wow! So, she’d be amazing playing the piano - can you imagine?

MONTGOMERY: Oh! Now, her beak is right in the middle there, and that’s where you don't really want your hand to be. Oh, she’s got me! Hear those suckers coming out?



MONTGOMERY: Look at you! She’s so big.

CURWOOD: Oh my god.

MONTGOMERY: Isn’t this amazing?

CURWOOD: So, what do you think? She’s recognizing you again?

MONTGOMERY: Well, I just saw her Friday, but I really think that she’s being much more affectionate because she’s with Wilson, and she feels like a friend of Wilson's is a friend of mine. Hear the suckers coming off?

CURWOOD: Yeah. Now this color she is right now - she’s very red - does that mean she’s happy?

MENASHI: Red is very normal and they kind of stay this way. They kind of get more flashes of darker reds and whites when they’re aggressive.

MONTGOMERY: And she’s all over me now! I've got one, two … both of my hands and my forearms are covered, but look, there’s the beak, right where all of her arms come together - that’s where her mouth is.

CURWOOD: Uh huh. Are all of the fish gone? Look at that - woah!

MONTGOMERY: I’m going to come home covered with hickeys!

MURPHY: It’s amazing, if you feel how firm their arms are? Amazing that’s just all muscle - that's so solid it feels just like a steel cable, but it's just muscle. It shows you how strong they can be.

(Photo: Tony LaCasse)

MONTGOMERY: This is great! Her tentacles are coming just as fast as you can take them off! She’s really enjoying this. This is lovely. Do you think she’d want my rock? Here sweetheart, would you like this? Here’s a nice rock. It’s from New Hampshire. She’s holding onto it - she’s investigating it. Well, she's not as interested in the rock. Look at the difference between touching the rock and touching me. She can get so much more interesting information out of touching me than touching the rock, I think.

CURWOOD: You know, Sy, I think you are probably more interesting than a rock.

MONTGOMERY: (Laughs) So glad to hear! I bet you say that to all the girls!

CURWOOD: (Laughs).

MONTGOMERY: There she goes. She’s got the rock. Opp! She’s dropping the rock. She doesn’t care about the rock. Cares about my hand, though - look at this! Here darlin’. Now, watch this: here comes the fish - she’s holding it with her sucker, and what she’ll do is she'll pass it if she wants to eat it. She’ll pass it from sucker to sucker to sucker as it goes into her mouth, but she may just want to play or not want to do anything with it. Right now, she seems more interested in interacting with us than eating the capelin. Oh, god, look at how - she’s coming - she’s coming out of her exhibit!

MENASHI: She knows where the food comes from so grabbing the food bowl and trying to take it.

MONTGOMERY: But she's not even hungry, she’s just doing it for fun, isn’t she? Oh, she’s wonderful! Just wonderful. This is so different from the first encounter that I had with her.


CURWOOD: Now, here’s a creature that’s smart, sentient and looks nothing at all like us.

MONTGOMERY: In fact, when she touches you with those suckers, she is knowing your skin, and probably your bones, and probably your blood and your muscle in a way that no other animal will ever know you. That’s what she’s knowing when she touches you. And look how white she’s going now - right under my touch. So, she feels very calm. I feel calm too.

[MUSIC: Gary Burton: “Dance Of The Octopus” from For Hamp, Red, Bags, And Cal (Concord Records 2001)]

CURWOOD: So, I guess our time is up with Octavia.

MONTGOMERY: Wow! Was that the greatest thing ever?

MENASHI: And now my hand is frozen, too.

Eight arms are not the only things human have in common with octopuses. From left to right, biologist Bill Murphy, LOE’s Steve Curwood, writer Sy Montgomery, and volunteer Wilson Menashi. (Photo: Eileen Bolinsky)

MONTGOMERY: Oh boy, you know, I didn’t even notice how cold it was.

CURWOOD: Wow! So, if an octopus is this smart, what other animals that are out there could be this smart - that we don’t think of as being sentient and having personality and memories and all these things?

MURPHY: It’s a very good question. The ocean is a very undiscovered world and there’s a lot of animals out there we don’t even know about - there's a lot of animals that we know they're there, but they don’t know anything about them. Who knows what else is actually out there for the ocean?

CURWOOD: Bill Murphy from the New England Aquarium, Sy Montgomery… thank you both for being with me today, and Octavia. Octavia will you say something? (Silence). I guess she’s taking a nap after having lunch. Thank you both.

MURPHY: No problem, thank you.

MONTGOMERY: Our pleasure!



Sy Montgomery’s article “Deep Intellect” in Orion Magazine

Sy Montgomery blogs about Octavia and our visit to the New England Aquarium on Orion’s website

New England Aquarium’s Giant Pacific Octopus page


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