When I was snorkelling in the warm waters of the Mahurangi, I came upon an octopus. It was draped on a rock in surging swells, (temporarily) coloured orange. Even though it was in an area sometimes targeted by harvesters, I really hope it’s there still.
There are many special things about octopuses. They are venomous, they have three hearts, and they can camouflage and change colour and texture. Their tentacle suckers are incredibly strong and can taste and feel at the same time. Instead of a central nervous system, their tentacles host a ‘brain’ in each arm. The suckers on their arms have thousands of sensory receptors, compared to a few hundred on the human fingertip. Scientists say each arm can respond to the world independently, and with the other arms, but without direction from the central brain.
Octopuses are incredibly adept. They sometimes like to play. They have been seen using tools, including carrying coconut shells as mobile protection to barren seafloors, where otherwise they would be conspicuous and at risk of predation. That requires thinking ahead and planning to avert danger. They can open child-proof jar lids for treats inside – which also puts them ahead of many human adults in intelligence and dexterity. They can even open jar lids from the inside when they want to escape. Indeed, they are masterful escape artists and can squeeze through holes the size of a coin in pursuit of freedom or food.
Inky, the soccer-ball sized octopus at Napier’s aquarium, found fame when he escaped his enclosure, slithered across the floor, down a 15cm wide drain pipe and across five metres to the sea. In her book, Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery lovingly tells the story of Kali, a Pacific Octopus in the New England aquarium who lived in a barrel. It escaped from its home through a gap 2.5cm wide. I recommend that book if you want to experience the wonders of octopuses. In an Otago University aquarium, a determined octopus repeatedly caused the lights to short-circuit by squirting water at them, eventually leading to his release back to the sea.
Octopuses have distinct ‘personalities’ according to researchers and express likes and dislikes for different people. In scientist Frans de Waal’s book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? he concludes that we’re not, really. But he makes special mention of the intelligence of octopuses. Among other things, they are capable of theory of mind. They are self-aware and recognise awareness in others too. When I was reading de Waal’s book at a beach, I set off to find an octopus. Hiding in a small crevice on an exposed reef at low tide, I saw a black and white octopus. He saw me looking at him and gathered a collection of rocks and shells to hide, while peeping out – proving de Waal’s point.