| Jr. Feature |

Octopus Escapades

True adventures from the lives of cephalopods


Octopuses are smart. Very smart. They’re also slippery, strong, curious, capable of crazy camouflage and lightning-fast appearance changes, and they’re extremely flexible. And yet we still find these cephalopods (seh-fa-low-pawds, a category of marine creature) to be very surprising. True adventures from the lives of cephalopods


Inky’s Great Escape

Inky was a common New Zealand octopus who was living at New Zealand’s National Aquarium… until he broke out of his tank one night by pushing the lid off. He slipped down a 6-inch-wide drainpipe and made an eight-armed escape back into the ocean. Aquarium staff noticed his disappearance right away and were able to figure out where he went by following a wet trail he’d left. That was about five years ago, and he hasn’t been seen since. His escape made headlines around the world, and his story continues to fascinate people.

“He was very inquisitive and liked to push boundaries,” said Rob Yarrell, the manager of Inky’s former aquarium.

Inky had been donated to the aquarium by fishermen who caught him the year before. And he was dearly loved by visitors and staff because he seemed so inquisitive and also so engaging. People weren’t shocked by Inky’s escape and disappearance — it seemed to fit his nature. “We hope he does well in his new life,” Yarrell said.

Sid was another smart New Zealand octopus. And, like Inky, he had made some pretty brilliant escapes. Unlike Inky, he didn’t make it back to the ocean on his own. Each time, he was found and put back in his tank. Once, he even hid in a drain for five days before trying to escape again. An aquarium spokesman said, “He was one of the octopus[es] that escaped every moment he got. We had to tie the doors shut to keep him in. He could fit through a gap about two inches wide.” Eventually, employees at the aquarium got the hint — and they released him back into the wild.

Practically speaking, how did Inky and Sid do it? How did they figure out how to get out and where to go? And how did they know to do it in the middle of the night when no one would be around?

James Wood, a marine biologist and octopus expert, said octopuses are “active, curious, and they engage with their environments.” He said they’re fast learners and will quickly figure out where food is coming from in an aquarium, noticing other details, too. They’re able to process information, make quick decisions, and even form mental maps pinpointing the exact location of their dens on the ocean floor. They’re super strong and can manipulate (i.e., move around or play with) almost anything.

Because octopuses have soft, flexible bodies and no bones, they can squeeze through tiny spaces and openings. Believe it or not, a 600-pound octopus (about half the weight of a grizzly bear!) can squeeze and shift its body to fit through a space the size of a quarter. Octopuses are also used to moving around quite a bit in the ocean, looking for food and shelter, so it makes sense that they would want to leave their aquarium tank and explore.

Octopuses are extremely unusual for invertebrates (animals without spines), and for animals that live such a short time (usually only around a year or two). They’re smarter than many mammals, can recognize individual faces (even when people are dressed exactly alike), develop their own unique personalities, and, of course, make brilliant escapes. In fact, they have the largest, most complex brains of any invertebrate.

Octopuses also have great eyesight underwater, and out of the water they use the suckers (those suction-cup thingies) on their arms for touch, taste, and suction. Each arm has around 200 suckers, and each sucker has thousands (and possibly millions) of neurons. (Neurons are nerve cells, responsible for receiving input from the world and for sending commands to the muscles.) In fact, octopuses have more neurons than people! This sucker “system” allows octopuses to do amazing physical feats like unscrew jars (even a closed jar, from the inside!), take apart LEGO, open childproof pill bottles, use shells as tools, “walk” on the seafloor, “play ball” with objects underwater… and even escape across an aquarium building’s floor.

But Wood claims Inky wasn’t being “sneaky” by escaping. He was just “an octopus being an octopus.” How do you like that?

Jennifer Mather, a psychology professor who has studied brain activity in octopuses, said, “Everybody who has ever kept octopuses has a string of stories about how octopuses can go where they want in aquariums…. There isn’t an awful lot that will stop them.” In fact, there have been entire research papers written on octopus escape behaviors and other octopus antics.


Here are some tentacle tales…

The Case of the Empty Crab Shells

An octopus moves around his enclosure placidly exploring his aquarium environment. He’s the picture of octopus innocence. And in the tank next door lies a crab shell… minus the crab. That crustacean was there yesterday. And he had other tank mates just a few days before, who all suffered the same mysterious fate. What was happening to the crabs? And why were the shells being left behind? At the Bermuda Aquarium Museum and Zoo there could be only one culprit: the octopus.

As it turns out, the octopus was escaping his enclosure each night to slip into a neighboring tank for some “crab cakes” or other snacks and then returning to his own tank after dinner. And he did it multiple times. Meet Octopus vulgaris, a species common to Bermuda’s waters, with arms that can grow up to 3 feet in length.

At the Bermuda Aquarium, the tanks were left open at the top to make sure enough oxygen was getting in — all the tanks except the octopus’s. His tank was covered with a fake grass mat (octopuses don’t like the feel of Astroturf) and there was wire mesh on top of that. All this was to keep him in (because octopuses have a reputation for escape, you know). But apparently it wasn’t enough. Seeing the crabs, fish, and shellfish next door were too big a temptation!

After the octopus crab thief was caught, the aquarium had to start changing their resident octopus on a monthly basis. The cephalopods were just too smart to be kept in captivity longer. That was back in 2015, and they’ve been rotating octopuses ever since.

In a similarly sinister tale, in 2011, employees at the Seattle Aquarium noticed a number of dogfish sharks turning up dead. They couldn’t figure out what — or who — was killing them, until they left a camera on their tank. A large Pacific octopus was attacking the sharks and strangling them to death in the night!


The Big Flood

In 2009, the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium in Santa Monica, California, experienced its own brand of octopus mischief. A two-spotted female octopus kept there was pretty small (only a foot long) but caused big problems. She managed to disassemble a water valve at the top of her aquarium tank, which subsequently released 200 gallons of seawater into the building. It caused a huge mess in the surrounding exhibits and some offices, and damaged the building’s brand-new floors in the process. The octopus was unharmed but was placed in a more carefully designed tank after that, rigged shut with clamps and tape. Seems like it would be easier to let her go, wouldn’t it?

Sadly, an octopus at Los Angeles’s San Pedro Cabrillo Marine Aquarium wasn’t so lucky. Back in 1994, Octavia the Octopus was found dead at the bottom of her waterless tank one morning. Aquarium officials figured out that she had used her powerful tentacles to pull off a plastic water pipe drain — even though it had been secured with a silicone sealant. With that pipe gone, water flowed out of the tank too quickly, and Octavia died as a result.

Octavia’s story spurred a huge controversy. The giant Pacific octopus had been caught by fishermen and put on display in the museum. Many people thought it wasn’t right to take an animal out of the wild and put it in confinement like that, especially in a tank that was only 4 feet by 5 feet. Although the aquarium received petitions to release her back into the wild, they refused, and Octavia ended up dead. “It’s absolutely amazing to us that this happened,” said the aquarium’s director, Mike Schaadt. “We are very saddened here at the aquarium… We believe we did the best we could.”

What do you think?


Lights Out!

At the Sea Star Aquarium in Germany in 2008, a 6-month-old octopus named Otto came up with an interesting form of entertainment. Every night, when all the employees were away, Otto would climb up the side of his tank and squirt water onto a 2,000-watt spotlight high above him. He managed to squirt enough water that it would not only short-circuit that light but would knock out the electrical system in the entire building. The first time it happened, the employees didn’t think much of it. Then it happened again. And again.

Elfriede Kummer, the aquarium’s director, said, “Every day for like two or three days, when we would get into the aquarium, you know, it’s just silent. Nothing is working. And on the third day, we just had to know what was happening, what is going on.” The employees actually spent the night in the aquarium to keep watch. But they didn’t see anything. Finally, they set up cameras. That’s how they discovered it was Otto, the octopus, shooting water at the lights. Aquarium officials said he was probably doing it out of boredom, because the aquarium was closed to visitors in the winter. Other “amusements” with which Otto entertained himself included playing with hermit crabs, throwing rocks, and moving everything around his tank. The aquarium even tried giving Otto a chessboard for amusement, but after a few days he threw that out of his tank.

An octopus at a lab at the University of Otago in New Zealand was doing the lights-out trick, too. Eventually, all the short-circuiting became so expensive that the lab had to release the octopus back into the wild.

It’s not as crazy as it all sounds. Octopuses really don’t like bright lights. And they’re known for squirting water at things that bother them. So one plus one should be simple, right? It just took awhile for the researchers to figure that out…


Down the Drain

An octopus being kept at Pennsylvania’s Millersville University for research purposes showed the researchers they didn’t know very much about octopus food preferences. In the wild, octopuses catch and eat fresh fish, crabs, and shellfish when they’re hungry. But in a lab environment, they’re fed canned seafood or frozen stuff (once it’s defrosted, of course).

One octopus didn’t like this second-rate “stale” shrimp and squid. After she was given her portion, she held onto her squid, seeming to wait for something. The researcher — Jean Boal — continued along the row of tanks. But on her way back down the row, she noticed the first octopus, still holding her squid. The octopus made direct eye contact with Boal, and, while Boal was watching, the octopus stuffed that yucky squid right down the drain. Although Boal didn’t want to believe the octopus could possibly be communicating her dislike of day-old squid, there was simply no other explanation.


Squirt It

Octopuses take water into their bodies to remove the oxygen. When they “exhale,” they squirt it back out. An octopus at the National Marine Aquarium in Dorset, England, took to using this ability to play games with visitors and employees. Appropriately named Squirt, the octopus would save up water to soak passersby whenever they would walk by his tank. Sometimes he even got them square in the face!

In the same New Zealand lab where there was an octopus knocking out the lights, a different octopus decided it didn’t like one of the lab staff. (No one could ever figure out why.) But every single time that particular staffer walked by this octopus’s tank, the octopus soaked her with a steady stream of half a gallon of water. (And it usually hit her in the back of the neck!)


Masters of Deception … and Inspiration

Octopuses are true escape artists — and really smart, strong ones too. Another cool trick they have is the ability to camouflage themselves. They can change the color of their skin using chromatophores (kro-mah-toe-fours), which are color-changing cells. (Octopuses have these in the thousands.)

Making octo-camo even more astonishing is that these creatures cannot see color, so it’s not like they even see what color they need to adopt. (They identify their prey based on shape, smell, and movement, not color.) Octopuses can even change the texture of their skin. They do this by expanding and contracting the little bumps on their skin called papillae (pah-pih-lay). Some species can accomplish this within a thirtieth of a second.

We may never know why Hashem made octopuses so interesting or so smart. But one thing is for sure, they certainly inspire emunah! No other spineless, boneless, depth-dwelling, solitary creature displays such intelligence or such fascinating behavior. These animals are true niflaos haBorei.


Did You Know?

Octopuses have blue blood.

The smallest octopus in the world is less than an inch long.

100: Days it takes for an octopus to regrow an arm

240: Average number of suckers on each octopus arm

An octopus’s appendages aren’t tentacles; they’re arms.

289: Species of octopuses

Each of an octopus’s arms could be doing different and independent things.

Octopuses can regrow or regenerate lost arms.

3: Hearts an octopus has

The largest octopus in the world can weigh up to 600 pounds.

8: Arms an octopus has

If an octopus gets really bored or very stressed, it might eat its own arms.

2: Estimated number of octopuses that grow to adulthood from 50,000 eggs laid

Octopuses have venomous saliva.

5: Max life span, in years, of an octopus


(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 879)

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