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Archive for January 26th, 2010

Baby octopus on Bird Island. Photo credit: Greg Berke

Since my twice-daily drive to town taking the kids back and forth to school gets grindingly dull as I pass the same stunningly beautiful scenery time and time again .. azure seas, white sand beaches, verdant forest, ho hum … I frequently offer lifts to neighbors waiting for busses, and although ensuing conversations too often consist of tedious discussions of the three most popular topics here — a limited range of weather (all tropical), fish (also tropical), or sex (not as steamy as you’d think) — occasionally something gets me thinking.

My passenger this afternoon was an octopus diver, which is to say he puts food on the table by hunting, then selling, octopi for the tables of others. Since Sam has recently started snorkeling, we’ve been on the hunt ourselves for a sight of an eight-armed wonder, but they’re bloody hard to find.

Having access to an expert, I sought some advice, but ended up getting more questions than I asked. Knowing that I spend much of my time online, he asked if I could do a bit of research on the tasty cephalopods, then report back.

Asking about the lifespan of an octopus started the wondering, since Stephen has no idea if the creature he finds, stabs in the eye, then pots has been around for five months of fifty years.

Turns out, the fifty year thing isn’t possible. According to the octowiki, these amazingly intelligent, bilaterally symmetric dudes aren’t around for long at all … and they can blame that on sex (which we knew we’d get around to eventually).

Octopuses have a relatively short life expectancy, and some species live for as little as six months. Larger species, such as the North Pacific Giant Octopus, may live for up to five years under suitable circumstances. However, reproduction is a cause of death: males can only live for a few months after mating, and females die shortly after their eggs hatch. They neglect to eat during the (roughly) one month period spent taking care of their unhatched eggs, but they don’t die of starvation. Endocrine secretions from the two optic glands are the cause of genetically-programmed death.

According to the octopus hunter in my car, there are plenty of octopuses that are hard as hell to find, and since they breed by the zillions and don’t last long, I’m not too fussed about the occasional curry I enjoy.

I am, however, a bit bothered about dining on someone so much smarter than a cow.

Octopuses are highly intelligent, likely more so than any other order of invertebrates. The exact extent of their intelligence and learning capability is much debated among biologists, but maze and problem-solving experiments have shown that they do have both short- and long-term memory.

In laboratory experiments, octopuses can be readily trained to distinguish between different shapes and patterns. They have been reported to practice observational learning, although the validity of these findings is widely contested on a number of grounds. Octopuses have also been observed in what some have described as play: repeatedly releasing bottles or toys into a circular current in their aquariums and then catching them. Octopuses often break out of their aquariums and sometimes into others in search of food. They have even boarded fishing boats and opened holds to eat crabs.

Thanks to my car companion du jour, I now have a bit of an idea where to start looking for an octopus to share with Sam in the sea instead of over dinner, and I can’t wait until he catches sight of his first as it suddenly appears, moves, settles, then disappears in the flash of color morph that perfectly mimics its new spot.

Side note: a sack of dead octopuses is a pulsating bag of color … fascinating and sad, but when I come across the option I usually buy one for dinner.

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