Ova before ya know it

Octo-life – from egg to enigma to end

Photo by Meghan Holst/Aquarium of the Bay

Octo-curious? Find out what we can truly learn from the love life of an octopus thanks to octo-mind readers Jennifer Mather and Frank Grasso

If one allows that a dog may have consciousness… one has to allow it for an octopus, too.

Oliver Sacks

As plans to build the world’s first octopus farm for food – in Spain’s Canary Islands – raises deep concerns over the welfare of the cephalopods, we speak to two of the world’s leading octo-experts about these intelligent creatures of wonder, capable of problem-solving, creativity and focus.

The proactive practices of the octopus have long attracted researchers to be infatuated with these little geniuses. From their brainy arms to their intricately braided festoons, it’s no wonder people suspect that octopuses are aliens; the more you know about them, the more your mind is blown by the outlandishness of these curious and inspirational little cephalopods. But it’s the love life of the octopus that is particularly intriguing.

For the octopus, motherhood is the ultimate sacrifice | Photo by @AndreJohnsonPhoto

In most species, a female octopus dedicates about 30 percent of her life to her eggs. Generally, an octopus only lives a year or so, dying after their reproductive obligations are tended to, which takes a few months. Instead of mating as we generally think of it, the male octopus uses a specialised reproductive ‘sex arm’ to physically place his sperm sack into the female’s body cavity. Not super sexy, but it does the job.

Two coconut octopuses mating thanks to a ‘sex arm’ | Photo by Yury Ivanov

The last thing most male octopuses do after mating, before they die, is to attempt to get away from the female with ninja swiftness before she eats him. Now that her reproductive cycle has begun, hormones will take over and her senescence phase will begin. She may never eat again. As theory has it, eating the male ensures her a hearty meal to sustain her for the last few months of her life she will spend exclusively tending to her wee ones. Even if she doesn’t eat him after he bequeaths her his sperm sack, he’ll die soon anyway, so he’s kind of a jerk for not letting her eat him.

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Interestingly, the sperm and eggs do not come in contact within the body cavity. After carrying her precious cargo for a relatively long time for an animal with such a short lifespan, she finds somewhere safe and cosy to fertilise and incubate her little ones.

Photo by Ellen Muller

Being a diligent mama, she lays her thousands of eggs one by one, gently braiding them into long strands called “festoons” – which is oddly appropriate because they really do look “festive,” like party decorations in her little incubator cave.

Amazingly, an octopus can fit into a teeny opening as long as it’s bigger than her eyeball. The dwelling just has to provide space for her and her thousands of babes.

Eggs hanging like a ’70s beaded chain curtain | Photo by Louise Nott

Laying all those eggs and braiding the festoons can take over a month. Once she lays and braids all her little dumplings, she spreads the sperm over the eggs herself to fertilise them.

She will spend the next month or two fastidiously keeping her sweeties nice and clean, defending them from predators, and never leaving them as they incubate. By the time her darlings hatch, she’s about starved. She’ll die shortly after her Proud Mama Moment, watching them ascend to the ocean surface.

The process of physical deterioration and behavioral changes that begin after an octopus lays her eggs and ultimately leads to her demise is called senescence | Photo by: Andrey Shpatak

The brazen little hatchlings, known as paralarvae, boldly make their sweet way up to the surface to kick it with the plankton while they grow up and learn to use their rather complex bodies. Most of them get eaten, and only about one percent survive to live out their full life cycle. I can’t help but imagine a whale flashing a big ol’ smile with little octopus paralarvae stuck in its baleen.

They grow about 5 percent a day up there, achieving their full size and diving into life on the ocean floor in about two weeks. A few months later, they will begin their own reproductive cycle.

Octopuses are so intelligent, it’s amazing they’re orphaned at birth. Science isn’t really clear how these funny little orphans manage to spend their wee lives being such utter geniuses except by necessity, but they’re arguably smarter than they need to be.

Ova to the octopus mind readers

Regarded as an authority on ethics with regard to cephalopods, Jennifer Mather is the world’s most renowned octo-researcher, having spent years working with and studying these whimsical creatures.

“I found sea animals fascinating, and as a kid I had collected shells. So I thought ‘okay, I will study molluscs’. But I knew I wanted to study what the whole animal was doing,” she tells me, when asked why she went into her line of work. “I originally started off in ecology, but in my last year of undergraduate I took a course on animal behaviour and I thought, ‘That’s it – that’s what I want to study,’  but if you look at behaviour of molluscs, cephs are the most interesting.”

She was first drawn specifically to octopuses when she first got a chance to watch them in the ocean, in Bermuda. 

“I was on a shift, just watching. It’s amazing what you see if you just stop and watch,” she explains. “Anyway, the octopus had gone out and got some food, hung around in the home and ate it and threw out the shells. Then it stopped for a bit and glided out and down and picked up a small rock. After a minute or two it went out and got another, and then a third. Then it picked up these rocks, held them in front of it, and settled deeper in the home and went to sleep. I thought ‘Wait a minute, it planned that!’ The octopus wasn’t just reacting, it knew it wanted to put a ‘wall’ between it and anyone else, and it figured out what it needed, looked around and went out and got it. Planning not reacting, that’s really sophisticated. I had to think of them as animals that organised their own lives.”

Octo-researcher and psychologist Frank Grasso of Brooklyn College also studies octopuses and agrees they have a “fundamentally different” brain structure but possess remarkable resourcefulness and planning skills. |They have both long-term and short-term memory, which is unusual for a non-mammal, and they are adept at experiential learning and problem-solving.”

While vision is their preferred method for observation and learning, it’s amazing to know they actually have almost twice as many neurons in their arms as their actual brain. Each arm can think independently, and can smell and taste, though they always are in communication and synchronicity with the main brain. Some say they have nine brains, one in each arm plus the main brain, but expert Mather explains that’s a fallacy. While the arms have some level of autonomy, they do always maintain communication with the main brain.

It’s been discovered that nerves in their bodies detect the polarisation of light. That allows them to camouflage into their surroundings, both in colour and skin texture, despite being colour blind. Nonetheless, they can put on dramatic colour displays at will. They don’t do well in captivity, partially because they don’t thrive, and partially because they’re bonafide escape artists. That said, research is mostly limited to in-situ natural observation. They also have a fascinating ability to modify their own mRNA, leading to their incredible capacity for both physiological morphability and neuroplasticity.

So do they learn their mad life skills from watching other mature octopuses or through their own experimentation? How much is instinctive or innate? Why does an animal that pretty much lives solely to reproduce bear such astounding cognitive ability?

Mather believes their cognitive abilities and camouflage techniques come from necessity. When I asked how and why they do these remarkable displays of ingenuity of their own bodies she said “the pressures are so extreme they have to.” Like us – though somewhat more high stakes in some cases – they experience threats they are defenceless to unless they learn how to evade or avoid them. She says they are able to discern the type of threats afoot and how to react accordingly, but this also includes proactive measures to avoid being threatened in the first place.

Some speculate they may learn at least a little from mama in their short time together as the little darlings develop in their eggs since they do prefer visual learning and their eggs are transparent. Perhaps that’s at least how they learn to be such dedicated and loving mommies, if nothing else.

Mather also says they “love to play”. As long as their primal needs are met, she says, they are inquisitive little critters, “much like a five-year-old child”. They explore and tinker with things both for entertainment and, seemingly, learning purposes. Eloquently put in a research report by Mather, “the octopus’ curiosity and drive to investigate and gain more information may mean that, apart from the richness of any stimulus situation, they are consciously driven to seek out more information” and that, like human children, play is one way they do this.

Photo by Pia B

But are they smarter than us? According to the late and beloved neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks in his last book, The River of Consciousness (2017): “Whether one can use the c word – ‘consciousness’ – in regard to cephalopods can be argued all ways. But if one allows that a dog may have consciousness of a significant and individual sort, one has to allow it for an octopus, too.”

They may not necessarily be “smarter” than humans (though the jury might be out) but they’re certainly on par with many mammals and cognitively superior to fish. As invertebrates go, cephalopods are pure geniuses.

It’s fun to think if they lived longer and had that generational overlap allowing them to learn from mama what they could accomplish as a species. Even so, experts agree they possess remarkable comprehension, problem-solving skills, and forethought. They have no true defences against predators yet are able to survive, procreate, and even make time to play. 

Despite their morphological abilities, evident consciousness, and curious nature, they have never taken any interest in trying their tentacles in freshwater, Grasso notes, which may be because of their short lifespan. Grasso and his friends joke about them evolving to take a liking to freshwater and becoming our overlords.

Am I the only one who kind of hopes they do?

5 things we can learn from the octopus

Mama does what mama has to do. She does it tenderly with all her heart and focus. She knows her responsibility and purpose and takes it very seriously. What’s your purpose?

Octopuses think outside the box. They contemplate solutions by extrapolating from observations and past experience. They explore new ideas. You could say they’re critical thinkers, as we all should be. Childlike curiosity keeps both the mind and heart open, flexible, and well.

If you’ve seen an octopus navigating a reef, they change colours and textures as they go, blending right in. It’s almost seamless. If they encounter danger, they can burst forth with vibrant colors and ink and make themselves appear much bigger than they were just moments ago. They know what to do and when to do it. No doubt, no second guessing. They just trust their instincts to do the right thing. They’re confident they can adapt to and maneuver through any situation, simply by gauging the stimuli and recall of past experiences.

While being predatory animals, octopuses have no form of defence from other predators besides crafty evasive techniques. Don’t wait for a crisis to take care of yourself!

Maori Octopus (Macroctopus maorum) Westernport Bay, Victoria, Australia By: Matt Testoni

So few paralarvae survive that the population density of octopuses is generally very low, with the exception of a few places we know of. Generally, octopuses only seek other octopuses to mate. This said, they don’t learn from other octopuses, only their own experiences and environment. Do your experiences and observations conflict with what others have said or what they believe? Don’t be afraid to live your truth and not somebody else’s. 

Blue-Ringed Octopus (Hapalochlaena) Port Phillip Bay, Victoria, Australia By: Matt Testoni

What’s so good about this?

Octopuses are animals that are virtually good. They have no defence against predators, do not learn from their elders, and live a very short life span. You might think the poor critters would have no chance, but they innately have the forethought and improv skills to prevent problems from coming up in the first place. Their otherworldly adaptations, advanced cognition, and endlessly fascinating transformational prowess make octopuses worthy of our interest and adoration. They can teach us many lessons about living life with more grace, charisma, and ease.

Meet the writer

Jennifer Sala is a research writer in Ellsworth, Maine. She’s written for Wondermind, Discover Magazine and HerbRally, among others, and has a public Medium page @jennifer.l.sala. She published a short book, A Holistic Perspective On Lyme Disease & Co-infections based on her research and experience coping with and managing chronic infections – ones that tried to hijack her brain for years and destroy her kidneys but she’ll have none of that nonsense taking her down. She’s a practising shaman and has worked on construction sites, an organic farm, and in a barn of 20+ horses. But nerding out on facts and theories is her superpower, so sharing knowledge with the masses in the form of writing is her absolute favourite thing to do! Follow @JenWritesNerdy

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