The Octopus Might as Well be an Alien

Posted by Andrew on May 27, 2017 in Science

Our oceans are full of bizarre, alien-like creatures. Some seem like they’re straight out of an H.P. Lovecraft story, and there are almost certainly countless entire species yet to be discovered. We actually know more about the moon than our ocean floors. That’s because, if I remember correctly, it is more difficult to penetrate water than air or solid ground with RADAR and satellite signals. That makes sense in retrospect because the tides and other behaviour of seas appear more chaotic than the barren ground of our moon. Scientists obviously had an easier time figuring out how to send people there than they did with exploring the ocean floor. This is because the former happened, but only about 5% of these marine worlds have been mapped with any degree of accuracy. The entire bottom of the oceans have apparently been measured, but only with a resolution of 5km. That means that only objects that are that size or larger can be seen on maps, which excludes an enormous amount of detail. The landscape can be seen, but no smaller characteristics, and very little marine life, with tools like satellites and RADAR. Only a small percentage of the ocean floor has been mapped with accuracy greater than 5km.

This psychedelic realm is where the octopus lives. Just like other aquatic life forms, it has amazing characteristics that seem to make no sense. It also is different from your preconceptions given to you by cursory knowledge in regular school. This creature demonstrates the immense force of evolution, since it possesses astounding adaptations to its specific environment.

I watched a documentary recently about octopodes that was fascinating. To digress for a second, “octopodes” is apparently the most logically correct plural form of “octopus.” I thought for my whole life that “octopi” was the right word, but at least according to the Oxford English and Merriam-Webster dictionaries, it is wrong. Grammarians first changed the plural of “octopus” to “octopi” when they thought that the former was derived from a Latin Word. It turned out to be the case that “octopus” has Greek roots. So following Greek rather than Latin grammar rules tells us that “octopodes” is the proper plural form of “octopus.” But “octopuses” can be considered correct too because when a word is translated into English, it’s okay to make it cater to those grammar rules. So if you want to be true to the grammar of Greek, from which “octopus” originated, you can use “octopodes” if you want to sound smart, like I do. However, contrary to what I was taught in school, “octopuses” is a more accurate word than “octopi”, since Latin grammar rules make no sense for a Greek word. Etymology is awesome.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure that there are many other kinds of octopodes than those examined in the documentary I watched. But regardless of the type, they have crazy abilities and characteristics. They seem much smarter than you might think. My favourite part of the documentary was when they showed an octopus trying to open a jar to get a crab inside of it. The creature wrapped its tentacles around it, and failed with a few different strategies. But after maybe a few minutes, it somehow figured out how to put enough pressure on the lid to unscrew it. Then it squeezed itself into the jar, and engulfed the crab in alien death. I’m not doing it justice. Watch the short Youtube video called “Octopus Opens Jar” if you want to see its incredible power. The size of the jar shows how phenomenally good octopodes are at compressing themselves into spaces much smaller than their bodies. The jar looks significantly smaller than the octopus.

The octopus can also change colour. There seems to be debate on why it and other animals with the same ability do so. It is an excellent form of camouflage, allowing octopodes to look identical to rock clusters, only to pounce on unsuspecting prey. There seems to be speculation on whether the octopus also changes colour based on mood. Maybe it does so for both reasons, or it could be one rather than the other. Perhaps the motivation behind this depends on the type of octopus. I don’t know anywhere near enough about marine biology to understand what is the closest approximation to the truth.

Octopodes also basically have three hearts, and nine brains! Biology varies so wildly depending on the species. It’s amazing. Two of the hearts are essentially only used for sending blood to the gills, so they can breathe underwater. The third one pumps blood to the rest of the body. That blood is blue because hemoglobin, which makes blood red, is inefficient at transporting oxygen at low concentrations and temperatures. So octopodes use hemocyanin instead, a protein which contains a lot of copper, causing the blue colour.

An octopus does have one main brain, but they functionally act as if they had nine. This is because each tentacle has its own ganglion that is connected to the nervous system. I’m not a neuroscientist, but a ganglion is apparently a collection of nuclei, which are the centers of cells, responsible for biological processes. They connect to the cerebral cortex in the brain, and are responsible for movement. So an octopus’ appendages can almost think for themselves.

Let’s not forget that what everyone hears about octopodes is also purportedly true, which is that their arms grow back if they get cut or ripped off. This is a pretty enthralling skill. I bet every amputee wishes they could do this. Also, every species of octopus excretes that black venom that you’ve probably seen in movies. There seems to be some speculation about this serving another purpose, similar to camouflage. Other than being a poison, the venom might also be used as a form of communication. I’m not sure how that would work, but maybe an octopus shoots ink at others to send messages, either when other octopodes are present, or not. It could be their way of showing territorial anger, or camaraderie when they recognize a friend. Maybe they do it to tell people that they were in an area after they leave it, to dissuade invaders. Either away, that’s a pretty impressive weapon.

These are just a handful of the mind-boggling aspects of the octopus that are the most interesting to me. There are many more. I’m pretty sure that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the insanely unusual creatures lurking in the alien world that is our oceans. Science fiction authors could easily have concocted some of the bizarre animals like the octopus. Whether intelligent extraterrestrials exist is a fascinating question. There could be beings with 18 arms who communicate telepathically, are made of silicon, and can teleport and fly around in spaceships. Or maybe life doesn’t get any crazier than the extreme variation on our own planet. Either way, for all intents and purposes, the octopus is so different from us that it might as well be an alien.

Originally published at on May 27, 2017.



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