Why Octopuses are Absolutely Incredible and should be your Favourite Animal

Written by Rachael Cheeseman

 Photo by Jilly Bennet

Photo by Jilly Bennet

First things first. Yes,“octopuses”is the correct plural. Well, if we're going to get really technical we could use “octopods”, but “octopuses” is generally used even for scientific purposes. I know “octopi” seems a better fit and I know it's easier to say but it's wrong. Deal with it. Now that the grammar is out of the way we can move on to more interesting things. "What? More interesting than the pluralisation of words derived from ancient Greek, versus those derived from Latin?" I hear you cry out. I know, it seems impossible but bear with me. I'd wager that octopuses are so flipping amazing you won't even remember how to correctly conjugate a verb by the time we're through. 

1. They're Camouflage Geniuses (Yes, That's the Correct Plural for "Genius")

I'm sure a good deal of you already know that octopuses can change the colour of their skin in order to blend in with the background. Whilst that is pretty awesome, what's really incredible is how this camouflage works. Octopuses, and other cephalopods like squids and cuttlefish, have cells called chromatophores. Thousands of these cells lie beneath the surface of their skin, and at the center of the chromatophores is an elastic sac filled with pigment. A complex network of nerves and muscles can cause the sac to contract and expand, making the pigment more or less visible. Some octopuses also have cells called leucophores that can mirror back the colours of the environment. They can basically make themselves completely invisible to predators, much like the actual predator, only without the weird clicky noise. But the octopus's talents don't end there. You see, not only can the octopus change the colour of its skin it can also change the texture to match coral, rocks and nearby objects. They can create anything from small bumps and indentations to protruding spikes. And if that wasn't enough, you then have the Mimic Octopus that changes colour and contorts its body in order to look like other sea creatures. To date, it's known to be able to imitate 15 different marine species including lionfish and sea snakes. I like to imagine them as the T-1000's of the sea.

2. They've Got Brains all over the Place

Octopuses’ brains are big. It's believed they contain around 500 million neurons. That's pretty good by mammal standards (similar to a dog) but by invertebrate standards it's off the charts. It's Stephen Hawkins, world chess champion, head of MENSA, Sheldon Cooper, kind of good. Not only is the size of their grey matter impressive, the structure is just wonderfully alien. Mammal brains are quite tidy: different lobes for different types of processing all wrapped around the more primitive brain structures at the center with the skull to keep it all safe and together. Like a gooey chocolate, coated in a crunchy shell (actually don't picture it that way – that's awful). Gross imagery aside, octopus brains are not neat and orderly in the slightest. They're all over the damn show. In fact the highest concentration of neurons is in their arms, which allows them to independently feel and move without conscious effort. Can you imagine if your arms were able to move independently of your mind's control? (‘No, I wasn't planning on eating the whole cake. My arm just kept bringing more and more of it up to my mouth of it's own volition!’) Actually, come to think of it, that doesn't sound all that different to how things are already. 
The really weird thing about the octopuses brain is that although it shares no structural similarities with our brains, it's capable of some of the same functions including a capacity for short and long term memory, facial recognition and a version of sleep. 

3. They're Playful like a Puppy - A Weird, Underwater, Eight-Legged Puppy

With great intelligence comes great... playfulness, apparently. Well, perhaps mischievousness is a better word. There's an absolute butt load - not literally because a butt load is a measurement for alcohol and is equal to two hogsheads worth of liquid - of anecdotal evidence showcasing all the hijinks and shenanigans octopuses get up to. Some of it is quite sweet, they play with toys put into their tanks and can open boxes and jars to retrieve food. They'll wrap around the arms of their favourite keepers to pull themselves out of the water to get a closer look. They've even been known to shoot jets of water at a ball in order to bounce it around their tanks. However there is a somewhat darker side to their nature. Octopuses have an uncanny ability to remember people and, what's more, to remember when they don't like someone. There are countless stories of poor aquarium staff or research assistants who have somehow incurred the wrath of the octopus and are treated to regular soakings and jets of ice-cold water down their backs whenever they pass by the tank. In a German lab, octopuses caused all sorts of trouble when they realised they could turn out the lights by shooting water at the bulbs and short-circuiting the system. And lets not forget that octopuses are legendary escape artists. The only hard point on an octopuses body is its beak; this is the only part of themselves they can't squish down or contort. Therefore they are able to squeeze through any gap larger than their beak and this makes them veritable Houdinis. They've been known to slip out of cracks in their tanks, walk across the room (yes they can walk about on land for short periods of time) and slip into a neighbouring tank just to gobble up all the food before returning home. Octopuses so enjoy playing, that the aquariums that keep them must provide enrichment activities and be sure to interact with them often. 

4. They're Solitary Creatures with Horrible Sex Lives

That's right, bit of sympathy for our eight-legged friends please. The octopus lives most of its life completely alone. When it's time to mate, they do so using something called external fertilisation. Males have a modified arm which holds rows of their sperm. They can insert their spermatophores into the female’s oviduct but many tend to just hand it over to the female (who always takes it with one of her right arms - nobody has the faintest idea why). She then stores it in her mantle to spread over her eggs at a later time. Phew, things are really heating up here. Unfortunately after that steamy session the male soon dies. The female however has a rough road ahead. She will lay up to 400,000 eggs. 400,000! Let that sink in a minute. Whilst she waits for the eggs to hatch she does nothing but care for and protect them; she even stops eating. The moment the eggs safely hatch she undergoes what can only be described as a form of total cellular destruction. Her body turns on her, starting with her optic glands and progressing through all her tissues and organs until she dies.

5. They're Adorable

Okay, maybe not all of them. Although I happen to think there's an ethereal kind of beauty to all octopuses. But some of them are just too cute for words. They make me do that weird high pitch squealing thing whilst I talk about how I could just smoosh them. I defy you to look at the Dumbo octopus and not feel the same way. What's more, science is on my side. Scientists in California discovered a new species of octopus so cute they named it Opisthoteuthis adoribilis. It literally has adorable in its name, and if it's all official sounding and Latin it must be true.

There's lots of cool things about octopuses that should secure their place at the top of everyone's favourite animal list. Three hearts, blue blood, (because their blood is copper based rather than our red, iron based blood) they're basically aliens! And if you don't think that's incredible, you're just plain wrong.