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The Verge Review of Animals: the octopus

An alien on Earth

Dave Maass / Flickr

This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Up until now, we've written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.

Are octopi aliens? Maybe! After all, they’re the most intelligent of all invertebrates. Like us, they can solve puzzles and use tools. They seem to exhibit individual personalities. But it goes further than that. Their entire bodies (or beings, if we assume they have some kind of sentience) have evolved to grasp the world in a wholly unique way. The have large brains, but their limbs have minds of their own. And they can sense light with their skin better than humans do.

Octopi seem like chthonian beings waiting to inherit the Earth

Octopi are weird, even confounding from a biological standpoint. In the sense that their existence in the world differs from our own so much, they truly are alien. But when I see these creatures do what they do and behave how they behave, I think instead of benevolent, chthonian beings waiting to inherit the Earth, ready to turn it into their own Octopus’ Garden. I think it would behoove us to make peace with them. (As opposed to eating them, but I admit that I’m biased since I never found them tasty.) We could be friends with their kind if we tried.

As much as we’ve learned about octopus intelligence, we’re still swimming in uncharted waters. The entire genome for the California two-spot octopus is huge, almost as large as humans’, according to a recent study published in Nature. What’s surprising about that is the fact that the octopus genome doesn’t differ that much compared to other invertebrates. What makes them different and extra fascinating are the genes that helped give rise to the octopus’s complex, decentralized brain, as well as those tentacles roboticists seem to admire so much. As it turns out, those gene families are only so highly developed in vertebrates, and help show how the creatures achieved their intelligence.

Octopus 2

Octopus intelligence evolved in parallel with human intelligence

Findings like these give us a sense of how the octopus became so smart, but they don’t exactly explain why. One theory is that the octopus, like other mollusks, had a shell — but that shell was at some point lost to the ages. If that’s the case, losing that ancient shell forced them to think and learn in novel ways, suggests Jennifer Mather, co-author of Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate. Being shell-less means having extra mobility to hunt down delicious prey like crabs but no protection from predators like, well, literally anything bigger than the average octopus. So octopi had to figure out camouflage, hunting skills, and evasion strategies. That, over time, turned into a highly developed memory and mind for problem solving. That means their intelligence evolved in parallel with — but removed from — the evolutionary pathways that led to human intelligence.

All this makes me wish there were deep sea cities teeming with octopi going to school and work, figuring out how to get by in everyday life. In my mind, they’d inhabit the Lost City of R’lyeh, but rather than it being composed of supreme Lovecraftian terror, it’d resemble something closer to an underwater Pawnee, Indiana, with dreaded Octopus-faced Cthulhu playing a put-upon government bureaucrat just trying to get by.

Cthulhu at Work

(Cliparts.co)

That dream might be tough to pull off, though. Octopi aren’t social creatures, and most believe don’t mate without the male running the risk of being eaten. So much for the future octopian utopia. But wait! More recent research published in PLOS One has found that one particular species of octopus, the larger Pacific striped octopus, can live among others of its kind without any problems. Adding to the communal feel, these octopi can mate intimately — beak to beak and sucker to sucker — cohabit, and share meals.

Show some respect

All this is to say that we should probably start thinking about octopi less as delicacies and more as lifeforms that have a special place in the world. They may be weird and even a little scary, but they’re beings worthy of our respect.

The Octopus

Verge Score: 9.0

9.0

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Highly intelligent and highly resourceful

  • Tentacles inspire scientists

  • There’s still so much to learn

Bad Stuff

  • Somewhat unnerving

  • Most species are anti-social

  • Cannibalism is kind of a bummer