Each Arm Has a Mind of Its Own

Did you see The Shawshank Redemption? In this 1994 drama, Andy Dufresne (brilliantly played by Tim Robbins) escapes prison by methodically digging a 10 foot tunnel through his cell wall over 19 years, concealing the hole with a poster. One stormy night, he crawls through his tunnel to access a 500 foot sewage pipe and reach freedom. While this is among my favorite fictional prison escapes, today’s article involves a real life escape…

In 2016, an octopus at the National Aquarium of New Zealand made an unfathomable getaway. One night, “Inky” squeezed through a small gap at the top of his tank and slithered eight feet across the floor to a drainpipe. He maneuvered his way through the 164-foot-long pipe, which led directly to the ocean. By morning, staff discovered his tank empty and followed his wet trail to the open drain. Inky’s great escape became famous worldwide, showcasing the intelligence and resourcefulness of octopuses.

At first glance, they might seem as alien to us as any creature under the sea can be. Yet, these highly intelligent cephalopods share surprising commonalities with humans. From complex emotions and problem-solving abilities to their adaptability and communication, octopuses provide a mirror to some of the most fundamental aspects of human nature.

Octopuses possess an intelligence that’s highly developed and eerily similar to ours. They can solve puzzles, navigate mazes, and even use tools—a behavior once considered a hallmark of human ingenuity. In captivity, these fascinating creatures can recognize individual humans, remember solutions to problems, and manipulate objects to access food. And like humans, octopuses love to play—an indication of their curious and explorative nature. 

While octopuses might not have facial expressions, they communicate their emotions through changes in skin color and texture. These changes are not just for camouflage; they reflect states like fear, agitation, and relaxation. An octopus turns pale when scared and bright red when aggravated.

Octopuses also exhibit remarkable physical adaptability with the ability to squeeze through any space larger than their beak (demonstrated by Inky’s drain escape) and alter their body shape to blend into their surroundings. This physical flexibility helps them evade predators or hunt prey, similar to how we have historically adapted tools and strategies to do the same.

While octopuses lead primarily solitary lives, they do engage in complex mating rituals and exhibit advanced social behavior when necessary. During mating season they engage in delicate dances and exhibit wonderful color changes to attract mates. They also feel and react to pain, intelligently engage with their environment, and exhibit moods that suggest a level of consciousness far superior to the majority of other sea creatures. 

Consider the story of “Otto” from the Sea Star Aquarium in Coburg, Germany. The aquarium staff was puzzled by a series of mysterious electrical outages. After some investigation, they discovered that Otto had figured out how to squirt water at a bright light above his enclosure, causing the light to short circuit and go out. Otto was also known for juggling hermit crabs and rearranging his tank’s contents in repeating patterns for entertainment. Quite the interior designer.

Here are a few more fascinating facts about octopuses:

Octopuses have three hearts. Two hearts pump blood through the gills, while the third pumps it to the rest of the body. Oddly, the heart that delivers blood to the body stops beating when the octopus swims.

Octopus blood is blue because it contains a molecule called hemocyanin, which is more efficient than hemoglobin in cold, low-oxygen environments.

If an octopus loses an arm, it can regenerate it. The new arm will grow back fully functional over time.

Most octopuses have relatively short lifespans, typically ranging from 1 to 3 years. Some species, like the Giant Pacific Octopus, can live up to 5 years.

All octopuses are venomous to some degree, but only the blue-ringed octopus has venom that is deadly to humans.

When threatened, an octopus often releases a cloud of ink to create a smokescreen, allowing it to escape from predators. The ink can also dull the predator’s sense of smell.

After mating, the female octopus will lay thousands of eggs and guard them diligently until they hatch. During this period, she often stops eating and dies shortly after the eggs hatch. 

The fascinating aspects of octopuses inspired a 2020 Netflix documentary film called My Octopus Teacher. It won the award for best documentary feature at the 93rd Academy Awards.

Very few people know what you now know about octopuses. Consider using it to fascinate your family and friends, shining as a conversationalist at dinner. 

Let’s wrap it up with one more titillating tidbit about octopuses. American naturalist Sy Montgomery is the author of the New York Times’ best seller, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. In her words: 

“The fact that three-fifths of an octopus’ neurons are not in their brain, but in their arms, suggests that each arm has a mind of its own.”