I find the octopus to be quite a fascinating creature. First off, its structure is odd. Their bodies are essentially a long head with eight arms coming off of it, each covered in powerful suction cups. Then there’s their extreme flexibility. Because of their incredibly soft bodies (their weird birdlike beak mouth is the only solid part) they can squeeze through ridiculously small spaces. Many of them also have the ability to change colors, due to mood swings or to mimic other animals. Or, they also have venom. Every octopus has some, although only the blue-ringed octopus has venom that can kill a human. We’re not done talking about their defenses, though, as they have their signature ink spraying, enabling them to escape potential predators. This ink also appears to interfere with predator’s odor detection, so animals with excellent senses of smell, like sharks, are often thwarted by this weapon as well.
But the hallmark of the octopus is its intelligence. They are among the smartest, if not the smartest, of all invertebrates. Admittedly, this sounds like being the most hardcore rapper in Utah, but it’s true—studies have shown that they can learn, problem solve, and even use tools. I’d stop short of having them take a crack at your advanced physics homework, but still, their intelligence is rather respectable. I’ll illuminate this with two examples. The first is from an aquarium in
. One particular octopus had become known as a troublemaker. Due to apparent boredom (another sign of possible higher intelligence), it reacted by rearranging the objects in its tank (which upset the fellow inhabitants), throwing rocks at the tank’s glass walls, and even by juggling some of the hermit crabs. Then the aquarium started having problems with its electrical system—in a certain area the power kept going out, threatening some of the temperature-sensitive fish that required heaters, or filters, etc. The aquarium staff soon discovered that the octopus was the culprit for this too—it had learned how to open its tank top, climb up, and to shoot water from its mouth at a light which evidently annoyed it, causing electrical shorts. Germany
A friend told me another anecdote, from a television show she’d seen. A pet store was suffering mysterious fish disappearances. After this went on for awhile they set up more security cameras, and discovered something funny. Their resident octopus had learned how to open its tank, and then it rapelled itself over to other tanks, opened them, dropped down inside, ate some fish, and then returned to its home. What I find most impressive about this is not just that it figured out how to escape (although that’s cool in and of itself), but it had the presence of mind to correctly reclose the tanks it fed from, and its own.
You may be thinking, okay, they’re cool, interesting animals, but are they good eating? My answer is an emphatic yes. I’ve had them frequently at sushi restaurants, in two forms. Most places serve the adult, usually a piece of a tentacle, with part of their suction cups still attached. Granted, this last detail takes some getting used to, but the taste is very good. They’re definitely chewy, but in a good way. Baby octopus sushi is rarer, and involves consuming the entire body whole. The babies are more tender, and also delicious, plus you can pretend to be, say, a gigantic sperm whale or another leviathan sea creature. Finally, I’ve also had them canned, like sardines. They don’t taste quite as good as the fresh sushi, but it’s still very decent. I’ve even had them packed in their own ink, which I find darkly hilarious. How insulting to the octopus that they use one of its own defenses as a sauce! (Incidentally, the ink tastes good, but it does tend to stain the teeth.)
A friend of mine who’s a militant herbivore took me to a special all-vegetarian restaurant in
some years ago. I ordered the “mocktopus”—faux octopus made mostly from taro root, as I recall. It was incredible. Somehow they got the texture, color and even flavor right. I don’t know if I could have told the difference if a switch had been made. Sadly, I can’t recommend one of the restaurant’s beverages, though. I sampled some sort of grass drink, and it tasted well, like grass, like they’d emptied a lawnmower’s catch bag and ran that through a blender and served it up. Just awful! The berry flavored smoothy was a marked improvement. Manhattan
One final point about any octopus post is one of spelling and usage—that is, what’s the proper plural of octopus? Is it octopuses? Octopi? There are two correct plurals—octopuses and octopodes. This latter one is considered outmoded, however, and I just noticed my computer’s spell check has red-underlined it, kind of reinforcing this distinction. Octopi is incorrect, as users are mistaking octopus as being a Latin noun. It is, however, based on a Greek word, so octopi doesn’t work. The 2008 Oxford English Dictionary lists all three as okay, although it acknowledges that octopi is a misapprehension. Fowler’s Modern English Usage is amusingly bitchy about it—it lists octopuses as “correct,” octopodes as “pedantic,” and octopi as “misconceived.” So I hope this leads to fewer fights when you discuss more than one octopus with any English major or marine biologist friends who are sticklers for language accuracy.