The tide is out … far out. I’m sitting on a rocky finger beside a narrow surge channel, watching tiny hermit crabs lurch through the seaweed wearing abandoned snail shells for protection. Suddenly there’s movement down inside the channel. A dark-red, fluid form rises slowly to the surface, extends tapered tentacles into the exposed yellow rockweed and probes for a meal. Unmindful of me, an octopus casually penetrates a forbidden world.
Exotic creatures like the octopus always make me ponder our energetic search for extraterrestrial life. A microscopic bit of bacterium look-alike, found embedded in a rock that came from Mars, makes us delirious with anticipation. We tune into the cosmos, listening for alien broadcasts. We’ve created science fields like “exobiology.” And all the while, we’ve yet to identify about a million species of life right here on Earth. We fail to appreciate how downright bizarre some of our home-grown life forms are. The octopus is a case in point. Surely, Nature was in a frivolous mood when she created this elegant creature.
Did you know that our own waters are home to the world’s largest species? The giant Pacific octopus (Octopus dofleini) roams the nooks and crannies of Puget Sound and beyond; males have been known to reach a width, arm tip to arm tip, of over 30 feet. Members of this group, including the squid, chambered nautilus and cuttlefish, bear little resemblance to any other life form on earth. Oddly, the octopus and the oyster are relatives. It’s Nature’s little joke that this biological group (the mollusks) includes clams, mussels and limpets. The shell that protects the small mollusks has been reduced to an internal sliver in the octopus, allowing these eight-armed, fluid, jet-propelled creatures to live in the fast lane.
Moreover, the octopus has an exceptional eye; called a “camera eye,” it’s similar to ours, and thus the animal views the world a lot like we do. It’s also a master of camouflage; even its emotions come in colors. By manipulating pigment cells on its skin, it can change its wardrobe quickly, from brick red (anger), to white (fear), to a lumpy mottled beige (contentment). And oops! Is that plaid? The large brain makes this creature somewhat of an invertebrate prodigy. It can learn to unscrew a jar lid to get at tasty shrimp inside. But beyond some human-like skills, the creature tastes with its “hands,” has three hearts and never knows its parents or its children.
Our local species feeds on a saltwater smorgasbord of fish, crabs, clams, cockles, fish eggs, abalone, scallops, other octopuses … even small sharks and seagulls (not us humans though … local scuba divers often play with them, engaged in a surreal undersea ballet). While Mother Nature gave the octopus’ amazing attributes, some almost human, she nevertheless played a dirty trick by limiting the creature’s life span to a mere 4 or 5 years.
A mated pair swims into deep water to find a secluded den. The female soon lays her eggs, an average of 50,000, each the size of a rice grain. While fanning the eggs for about 7 months, she goes without food, an extreme example of parental sacrifice. Once the eggs hatch, her work is done and she dies.
So here’s to the octopus and all those other oddball inhabitants of our “miracle” planet, like the leafy sea dragon, the Venus fly trap and the platypus. Is it asking too much that we take better care of the non-human life forms endemic to Earth, granting them the same attention lavished upon that misidentified bit of “bacterium” from faraway Mars?
Nancy Sefton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.