Book review of “The Soul of an Octopus”

Preface.  The octopus is an amazing creature, more than can be conveyed in the bits and pieces I’ve selected below.  The only downside to reading it is that you may not want to eat octopus anymore!

2018: A team of researchers bathed octopuses in MDMA and found that it makes the typically asocial animals more social. The experiment had a hypothesis that some neurotransmitter systems are shared across vertebrate and invertebrate species. In this case, the authors were studying a serotonin transporter binding site of MDMA that they believed octopuses share evolutionarily with humans — even though our lineages are separated by over 500 million years. Basically, they thought that MDMA would have a similar effect on octopus behavior to the effect it has on human behavior.   To find out more, do an internet search on psychedelic octopus

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Sy Montgomery. 2016. The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. Atria books

Not just anyone can open up the octopus tank, and for good reason. A giant Pacific octopus—the largest of the world’s 250 or so octopus species—can easily overpower a person. Just one of a big male’s three-inch-diameter suckers can lift 30 pounds, and a giant Pacific octopus has 1,600 of them [48,000 pounds]. An octopus bite can inject a neurotoxic venom as well as saliva that has the ability to dissolve flesh. Worst of all, an octopus can take the opportunity to escape from an open tank, and an escaped octopus is a big problem for both the octopus and the aquarium.

The giant Pacific octopus is one of the fastest-growing animals on the planet. Hatching from an egg the size of a grain of rice, one can grow both longer and heavier than a man in three years.

Athena is about two and a half years old and weighs roughly 40 pounds. I reach to touch her head, which is silky and softer than custard. Her skin is flecked with ruby and silver, a night sky reflected on the wine-dark sea. As I stroke her with my fingertips, her skin goes white beneath my touch. White is the color of a relaxed octopus.  Later, Athena rises up from her lair like steam from a pot. She’s coming to Wilson so quickly it takes my breath away—much faster than she had come to see me earlier.

Octopuses can taste with their entire bodies, but this sense is most exquisitely developed in their suckers. Athena’s is an exceptionally intimate embrace. She is at once touching and tasting my skin, and possibly the muscle, bone, and blood beneath. Though we have only just met, Athena already knows me in a way no being has known me before.

Truman and George were laid-back octopuses, but Athena had earned her name, that of the Greek goddess of war and strategy. She was a particularly feisty octopus: very active, and prone to excitement, which she showed by turning her skin bumpy and red. Octopuses are highly individual.

At the Seattle Aquarium, one giant Pacific octopus was named Emily Dickinson because she was so shy that she spent her days hiding behind her tank’s backdrop; the public almost never saw her.

Another was dubbed Lucretia McEvil, because she constantly dismantled everything in her tank. George had been relaxed and friendly with his keeper, senior aquarist Bill Murphy. Some people find them very creepy and slimy,” he said, “but I enjoy it a lot. In some ways they’re just like a dog. I actually pet his head or scratch his forehead. He loves it.

Octopuses realize that humans are individuals too. They like some people; they dislike others. And they behave differently toward those they know and trust.

Occasionally an octopus takes a dislike to a particular person. At the Seattle Aquarium, when one biologist would check on a normally friendly octopus each night, she would be greeted by a blast of painfully cold salt water shot from the funnel. The octopus hosed her and only her.

Wild octopuses use their funnels not only for propulsion but also to repel things they don’t like, just as you might use a snow blower to clear a sidewalk.  One volunteer at the New England Aquarium always got this same treatment from Truman, who would shoot a soaking stream of salt water at her every time he saw her. Later, the volunteer left her position at the aquarium for college. Months later, she returned for a visit. Truman—who hadn’t squirted anyone in the meantime—instantly soaked her again.

A lion is a mammal like us; an octopus is put together completely differently, with three hearts, a brain that wraps around its throat, and a covering of slime instead of hair. Even their blood is a different color from ours; it’s blue, because copper, not iron, carries its oxygen.

Back home, I tried to replay my interaction with Athena. It was difficult. There was so much of her, everywhere. I could not keep track of her gelatinous body and its eight floaty, rubbery arms. I could not keep track of her continually changing color, shape, or texture. One moment, she’d be bright red and bumpy, and the next, she’d be smoother and veined with dark brown or white. Patches on different parts of her body would change color so fast—in less than a second—that by the time I registered the last change, she would be on to another.

Unconstrained by joints, her arms were constantly questing, coiling, stretching, reaching, unfurling, all in different directions at once. Each arm seemed like a separate creature, with a mind of its own. In fact, this is almost literally true. Three fifths of octopuses’ neurons are not in the brain but in the arms.

An octopus can also voluntarily control its skin texture—raising and lowering fleshy projections called papillae—as well as change its overall shape and posture. The sand-dwelling mimic octopus, an Atlantic species, is particularly adept at this. One online video shows the animal altering its body position, color, and skin texture to morph into a flatfish, then several sea snakes, and finally a poisonous lionfish—all in a matter of seconds.

Human eyes have three visual pigments, allowing us to see color. Octopuses have only one—which would make these masters of camouflage, commanding a glittering rainbow of colors, technically color-blind. How, then, does the octopus decide what colors to turn? New evidence suggests cephalopods might be able to see with their skin.


I was impressed that she even recognized a face so unlike her own, and wondered whether Athena might like to taste my face as well as look at it. I asked Bill if that was ever allowed. “No,” he said emphatically, “we don’t let them near the face.” Why? Could she pull out an eye? “Yes,” Bill said, “she could.” Bill has gotten into futile tugs-of-war with octopuses who have grabbed the handles of cleaning brushes. “The octopus always wins. You have to know what you’re doing,” he said. “You cannot let her go near your face.” “I felt as if she wanted to pull me into the tank,” I told him. “She could pull you into the tank, yes,” he said. “She will try.

Octavia grabbed my left arm with three of her arms and my right arm with yet another of hers, and began to pull—hard. Her thorny red skin showed her excitement. Her suction was strong enough that I felt her drawing the blood to the surface of my skin. I would go home with hickeys that day. I tried to stroke her, but my hands were immobilized. She kept me at arm’s length, each arm was at least three feet long.

Scott was pulling with all his considerable strength on the tongs to keep Octavia from pulling me into the tank. I submitted to the tug-of-war. I had no choice. Though fairly fit for a person of my size (five foot five, 125 pounds), age (53), and sex (female), I didn’t have the upper-body strength to resist Octavia’s hydrostatic muscles. An octopus’s muscles have both radial and longitudinal fibers, thereby resembling our tongues more than our biceps, but they’re strong enough to turn their arms to rigid rods—or shorten them in length by 50 to 70%. An octopus’s arm muscles, by one calculation, are capable of resisting a pull one hundred times the octopus’s own weight. In Octavia’s case, that could be nearly 4,000 pounds.

William Wyatt Gill spent two decades in the South Seas, among octopuses much smaller than the giant Pacific; but even these species are strong enough to overwhelm a young, strong, fit man. He wrote that “no native of Polynesia doubts the fact” that octopuses are dangerous.

Octavia was using only a tiny fraction of her great strength. Compared to what she could do, this was just a playful tug.

Octopuses live fast and die young: Giant Pacific octopuses are probably among the longest-lived of the species, and they usually live only about three or four years. And by the time they arrive at the aquarium, they are usually at least a year old, sometimes more.

Dying Octopus

“I had no idea George was about to die,” Bill said. “Usually they change in body and behavior and coloration. They don’t stay as red. They’re whitish all the time. The intensity isn’t there. They’re less playful. It’s like old age in people. Sometimes they get age spots, white patches on their skin that seem to be sloughing off.

The bliss of stroking an octopus’s head is difficult to convey to most people, even to animal lovers. A friend asked, aren’t they slimy? Slime is a very specialized and essential substance, and there’s no denying that octopuses have slime in spades, almost everyone who lives in the water does.  Slime helps sea animals reduce drag while moving through the water, capture and eat food, keep their skin healthy, escape predators, protect their eggs.  Octopus slime is sort of a cross between drool and snot.  And it’s very useful. It helps to be slippery if you’re squeezing your body in and out of tight places. Slime keeps the octopus moist if it wants to emerge from the water, which some species of octopus do with surprisingly frequency in the wild.

How did the octopus get to be so smart?

  1. The event driving the octopus toward intelligence was the loss of the ancestral shell, which freed up mobility. An octopus, unlike a clam, does not have to wait for food to find it; the octopus can hunt like a tiger.
  2. A single octopus may hunt many dozens of different prey species, each of which demands a different hunting strategy, a different skill set, a different set of decisions to make and modify. Will you camouflage yourself for a stalk-and-ambush attack? Shoot through the sea with your siphon for a quick chase? Crawl out of the water to capture escaping prey?
  3. But losing the shell was a trade-off, now the octopus became a big packet of unprotected protein, so just about anything big enough to eat it will do so.
  4. From building shelters to shooting ink to changing color, the vulnerable octopus must be ready to outwit dozens of species of animals, some of which it pursues, others it must escape.
  5. How do you plan for so many possibilities? Doing so demands, to some degree, anticipating the actions—in other words, imagining the minds—of other individuals. The octopus must assess whether the other animal believes its ruse or not, and if not, try something different.
  6. In Jennifer’s book, she and her coauthors report that specific displays are directed at particular species under specific conditions. The Passing Cloud display, for instance, is used by an octopus to scare an immobile crab into moving and thus giving itself away. But to fool a hungry fish, an octopus is more likely to use a different strategy: to rapidly change color, pattern, and shape. Most fish have excellent visual memories for particular search images, but if the octopus changes from dark to pale, jets away, and then turns on stripes or spots, the fish can’t keep track of it.
  7. An octopus has to match with many different species of bird, whale, seal, sea lion, shark, crab, fish, and turtle, as well as other octopuses and human divers—all with different kinds of eyes, different lifestyles, different senses, different motives, different personalities, and different moods.

In the wild, over the course of about three weeks, a female giant Pacific octopus might lay between 67,000 and 100,000 eggs. In the wild, most female octopuses lay eggs only once, and then guard them so assiduously they won’t leave them even to hunt for food. The mother starves herself for the rest of her life. A deep-sea species holds the record for this feat, surviving four and a half years without feeding while brooding her eggs near the bottom of Monterey Canyon, nearly a mile below the surface of the ocean.

The octopus goes all the way back beyond the Cenozoic, the time when our ancestors descended from the trees; back the Mesozoic, when dinosaurs ruled the land; the Permian and the rise of the ancestors of the mammals; back, the Carboniferous’s coal-forming swamp forests; back past the Devonian, when amphibians emerged from the water;  past the Silurian, when plants first took root on land—all the way to the Ordovician, to a time before the advent of wings or knees or lungs, before the fishes had bony jaws, before blood pumped from a multichambered heart, to more than 500 million years ago

A giant Pacific octopus can regenerate up to one third of a lost arm in as little as six weeks. Unlike a lizard’s regenerated tail, which is invariably of poorer quality than the original, the regrown arm of an octopus is as good as new, complete with nerves, muscles, chromatophores, and perfect, virgin suckers.

Arms can have a personality

But the bold versus shy arms could be something quite different. While arms can be employed for specialized tasks—for example, as your left hand holds the nail while your right hand wields the hammer—each arm may have its own personality, almost like a separate creature. Researchers have repeatedly observed that when an octopus is in an unfamiliar tank with food in the middle, some of its arms may walk toward the food—while some of its other arms seem to cower in a corner, seeking safety. Each octopus arm enjoys a great deal of autonomy. In experiments, a researcher cut the nerves connecting an octopus’s arm to the brain, and then stimulated the skin on the arm. The arm behaved perfectly normally—even reaching out and grabbing food. The experiment demonstrated, as one colleague told National Geographic News, “there is a lot of processing of information

As science writer Katherine Harmon Courage put it, the octopus may be able to “outsource much of the intelligence analysis [from the outside world] to individual body parts.” Further, it seems “that the arms can get in touch with one another without having to go through the central brain.

Another problem is that, this time of year, most of the octopuses are missing from one to four arms. Lingcod, voracious predators that grow to 80 pounds, with eighteen sharp teeth, are spawning, and will bite and bully octopuses to evict them from their dens and claim the holes as their own. This is likely how our octopus lost her arm.


The Octopus Blind Date has been a regular event at the Seattle Aquarium for nine years—the jewel in the crown of Octopus Week, the biggest draw of the aquarium year.

Octopus Week might bring 6,000 visitors. “It’s funny to think they come to see two animals mate,” says Kathryn Kegel, thirty-one, the aquarium’s lead invertebrate biologist. But for her, too, even after working here seven years, it’s one of the most thrilling days of the year. “The matings I’ve seen are such a ball of arms, you can’t tell apart the individual animals.” She’s never missed a Blind Date during her tenure. She reckons there’s “about a fifty-fifty chance they’ll be interested.” They may do nothing. Or one might attack the other. If this happens, she and another diver will try to separate them—if they can. “There’s too many arms to do much about it, though,” she admits.

One year, the female killed the male and began to eat him. And once, one octopus managed to remove the barrier separating the two tanks, and the two mated the night before the Blind Date.

Although there are exceptions, most species of octopus usually mate in one of two familiar ways: the male on top of the female, as mammals usually do, or side by side. The latter is sometimes called distance mating, an octopus adaptation to mitigate the risk of cannibalism. (One large female Octopus cyanea in French Polynesia mated with a particular male twelve times—but after an unlucky thirteenth bout, she suffocated her lover and spent the next two days eating his corpse in her den.) Distance mating sounds like the ultimate in safe sex. The male extends his hectocotylized arm some distance to reach the female; in some species, this can be done while neither octopus leaves its adjacent den.

Pacific striped octopus lives in communities of up to forty animals. Males and females cohabit in dens, mate beak-to-beak, and produce not just one but many broods of eggs over their lifetimes.

In the ocean, not a tank

Three hours south of Sydney that they call Octopolis, where, at a depth of about 60 feet, they have found as many as 11 Octopus tetricus living within one or two yards of each other. These are fairly large octopuses, with arm spans of six feet or more, and distinctive, soulful white eyes that also give the species the nickname “the gloomy octopus.” Matthew told me, “I’ve had a couple of experiences where we were diving at this site and an octopus grabbed my hand, and took me to its den, five meters away.” Once, an octopus took him on what he called “a big circuit” around the area, a tour that lasted for ten or twelve minutes. Afterward, the octopus climbed all over Matthew and investigated him with his suckers, as if, having shown him around the neighborhood, he now wanted to explore his human guest in turn. The octopuses he met, Matthew told me, were “not aggressive—they’re curious.” Because he dives Octopolis regularly, Matthew is certain the octopuses there recognize him. Perhaps, he mused, they even look forward to his visits. He often brings them toys—bottles, plastic screw-apart Easter eggs, and GoPro underwater video cameras—all of which they dismantle with interest and sometimes drag into their dens.

To Keith’s amazement, after giving him a guided tour, the first octopus met up with a second octopus. Keith couldn’t decide which one to photograph. How can you decide which of your subjects is more photogenic, when both change color and shape before your eyes? Keith chose to stick with the first one, who crawled around the side of a rock. As Keith was photographing it, the second octopus traveled up and over a higher rock nearby, stood up tall on its arms, as if on tiptoe, and, with what looked like keen interest, leaned toward Keith and the other octopus he was photographing. “It actively positioned itself so it could observe me,” Keith said. “It was so amazing to be observed like that. In all my years photographing animals underwater—sharks, tuna, turtles, fish—I’ve never encountered anything that watched me like this. It was like a person watching a model at a fashion-photo shoot, or watching a pro football player at a game. Most of the time, fish observe you and notice you. But they don’t look at you like this, like they are watching and learning. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

Keith points to a school of yellowfin goatfish, their chin whiskers equipped with chemoreceptors that let them taste and smell food hidden among coral and under sand. Right now these 11-inch fish sport electric yellow stripes over satiny white; but, like those of the octopus, their colors aren’t static. These fish are capable of a feat that earned their Mediterranean relatives an unenviable star turn at Roman feasts. Goatfish were presented to guests live, so that diners could watch them, in their death throes, change color.

Beneath us, emerald and turquoise parrot fish pluck algae from coral with their beaks—actually mosaics of tightly packed teeth. Each sleeps in its own private mucous cocoon, a slimy sleeping bag secreted from the mouth, to conceal its scent from predators. Parrot fish are sequential hermaphrodites: All are born female, and later transform themselves to males.

In the village of Papetoai, just a short drive from CRIOBE, there was once a temple dedicated to the octopus, the guardian spirit of the place. To Mooréa’s seafaring people, the supernaturally strong, shape-shifting octopus was their divine protector, its many reaching arms a symbol of unity and peace. Today, a Protestant church occupies that site. Built in 1827, the oldest church in Mooréa still honors the octopus. The eight-sided building nestles in the shadow of Mount Rotui, whose shape, to the people here, resembles the profile of an octopus.

Keith and I are the only foreigners to join the packed congregation of about 120 people. Almost everyone around us has a tattoo; many of the women wear elaborate hats made of bamboo and live flowers. The minister wears a long, waist-length garland of green leaves, yellow hibiscus, white frangipani, and red and pink bougainvillea; the women in the choir are adorned with headdresses of flowers and leaves.


  1. Hawaii, where ancient myths tell us our current universe is really the remnant of a more ancient one—the only survivor of which is the octopus, who managed to slip between the narrow crack between worlds.
  2. On the Gilbert Islands, the octopus god, Na Kika, was said to be the son of the first beings, and with his eight strong arms, shoved the islands up from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean
  3. Pm the northwest coast of British Columbia and Alaska, the native people say the octopus controls the weather, and wields power over sickness and health

What goes on in Karma’s head—or the larger bundle of neurons in her arms—when she sees us? Do her three hearts beat faster when she catches sight of Bill, or Wilson, or Christa, or Anna, or me? Would she feel sad if we disappeared? What does sadness feel like for an octopus—or for anyone else, for that matter? What does Karma feel like when she pours her huge body into a tiny crevice of her lair? What does capelin taste like on her skin?

An octopus’s mouth is in its armpits. Octopuses generally grab prey with their suckers, then pass it from sucker to sucker, as if along a conveyor belt, until it reaches the mouth.

Christa places a second fish in the pillowy, white cups of another arm. Instantly Kali becomes exceptionally calm. Lying upside down at the surface, arms splayed, she gives us an extraordinary view of her shiny, black beak. This is the first time even Wilson has seen the beak inside a living octopus. It is a private and trusting moment, her sharing with us this surprising part of her, normally hidden inside at the confluence of her arms.

On his first few dives, Ken had not found a suitable octopus. Sometimes he saw no octopus at all. “Sometimes you just get skunked,” he said. But Ken was determined. It took him six dives, but finally he found the octopus that would be destined for Boston. He spotted her at a depth of about 75 feet, hiding in a rock formation, with just her suckers sticking out. Ken had touched her gently and she had jetted from her crevice—directly into his waiting monofilament net.

“The net is so soft you wouldn’t feel its abrasion on your face,” Ken told me. “You have to treat these animals with kid gloves. You can’t yank them to the surface. You don’t want to shock them.” The water temperature at that depth may be more than 15°F colder than the water at the surface, so he had transferred her from the net to a closed container in about 50 gallons of water, and hauled everything slowly to the surface.

Karma now rises to the top of the barrel when I slap the water, so calm in our presence she often turns nearly pure white when we play with her. She’s active, but not nearly as exuberant as Kali. She prefers to suck on us with her larger suckers, sometimes hard enough to give us hickeys that persist for twenty-four hours. When we try to interact with the tips of her arms she lets them slip from our hands. After twenty minutes or so she typically relaxes, holding us gently. But then she grabs us again, more emphatically, as if to remind us: I am strong enough to pull you in. I am gentle because I choose to be.


A friend who works with elephants told me of a woman who called herself an animal communicator, who was visiting an aggressive elephant at a zoo. After her telepathic conversation with the elephant, the communicator told the keeper, “Oh, that elephant really likes me. He wants to put his head in my lap.” What was most interesting about this interaction was the part the communicator may have gotten right: Elephants do sometimes put their heads in the laps of people. They do this to kill them. They crush people with their foreheads like you would grind out a cigarette butt with your shoe.

Marion Britt further demonstrated the positive power of interesting, gentle, loving interaction between keepers and the animals in their care. And she did it by directly handling the most fearsome animals in the aquarium—the 13-foot-long, 300-pound anacondas. “Before Marion,” says Wilson, “nobody would go into the tank with the anacondas.

South America’s top predators, anacondas readily hunt and kill adult deer, as well as 130-pound capybaras, and have been known to eat jaguars. I happen to have met one of the best-known biologists studying anacondas, Jesus Rivas, who has documented two predatory attacks by these powerful constricting snakes on his assistants in the field. Humans “are well within the predator-to-prey ratio” of anacondas, who can grow to 30 feet, he said. The only reason anacondas don’t attack humans more often is that, other than Rivas and his field team, people don’t venture where they know anacondas are found.

But Marion did. When she started at the aquarium as a twenty-four-year-old intern in Scott’s gallery in 2007, there were three anacondas—whom nobody could safely touch.

South America’s top predators, anacondas readily hunt and kill adult deer, as well as 130-pound capybaras, and have been known to eat jaguars. I happen to have met one of the best-known biologists studying anacondas, Jesus Rivas, who has documented two predatory attacks by these powerful constricting snakes on his assistants in the field. Humans “are well within the predator-to-prey ratio” of anacondas, who can grow to 30 feet, he said. The only reason anacondas don’t attack humans more often is that, other than Rivas and his field team, people don’t venture where they know anacondas are found.

By the time Marion stopped working at the aquarium, the two larger anacondas, Kathleen and Ashley, would slither up to her and curl up with their heads in her lap. And now, thanks to Marion, no more are snakes traumatized by head restraint whenever they need to be moved from their tank for their yearly veterinary checkup, or to treat an illness, or when the tank needs to be drained. The staff no longer dreads interacting with them. Clearly, the snakes are happier and healthier for it.

The rest of the staff has also learned to recognize when the snakes are not in the mood to be handled, and back off at these times to try another day.

“Just about every animal,” Scott says—not just mammals and birds—“can learn, recognize individuals, and respond to empathy.

Scott reads other fish cues just as fluently. When we visited the cichlids in their new home, he compared those who had just been moved to those who had been living there for weeks or months. The stripes on the new immigrants were paler. “And look at this one,” he said, pointing to a fish who was already at home in the tank. “See the sparkle in the eye? Now look at this other one. You don’t see the sparkle.” Scott can read the faces of fishes as easily as you or I read a person’s.

Every day, animals at the aquarium are being born and dying, arriving from collection expeditions or from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service agents, or getting shipped to and from other aquariums throughout the United States and Canada. The comings and goings are always delicate, frequently surprising events. One morning I find Bill has been gifted with a 21-pound lobster caught off Nauset Beach in Orleans, Massachusetts—given by the anonymous winner of a raffle at Cap’n Elmer’s fish market to benefit Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. The lobster’s claws are so heavy he cannot lift them out of water. Another day, eighteen Amazon stingrays arrive in Freshwater, each as large as a bathmat. They had been living in a huge tank owned by a paraplegic man whose ground-floor apartment is being renovated; they have grown too large for him to keep.

Animal-keeping institutions aren’t all the same in the care they give sick inmates. When a friend of mine was working at a small zoo in the early ’80s, their kangaroo fell ill. She called a zoo in Australia for help. “What do you do when your kangaroo gets sick?” she asked. “Shoot it and go catch another one,” came the reply.

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One Response to Book review of “The Soul of an Octopus”

  1. Bev Courtney says:

    Unreal….and scary!