‘Gulf Stream Orphans’ Find Safe Hiding at Save The Bay Aquarium
Octopi intelligence anything but common when it comes to invertebrates
October 22, 2023
NEWPORT, R.I. — In Ray Nayler’s 2022 novel “The Mountain in the Sea,” the science fiction writer introduces readers to an octopus species that has human-like intelligence and its own language and culture.
Far-fetched? Perhaps. But the same was once said of George Orwell’s “1984.”
Octopuses or octopi, both are acceptable plurals for octopus, have brains — which, by the way, are doughnut-shaped — that are larger than any other invertebrate. Their brain-to-body ratio is the largest of any invertebrate, and larger than many non-mammal vertebrates.
Their nervous systems are more typical of animals with a backbone. For instance, octopi have about as many neurons as dogs — some 500 million.
In the wild, they have been observed using tools and taking catch from fishermen’s traps. Immune to the poison of the Portuguese man o’ war, the blanket octopus pulls the jellyfish’s tentacles off and brandishes them as weapons against predators. The veined octopus collects and cleans discarded coconut shells for shelter.
In laboratory experiments, octopi have unscrewed lids, undone fasteners, opened boxes, and solved mazes. They have also escaped from aquarium tanks.
A common octopus rescued from local waters and brought to Save The Bay’s Exploration Center & Aquarium on Memorial Boulevard opens a jar — usually containing invasive and calcium-rich Asian shore crabs — nightly to get at its nighttime snack.
“According to many studies, they have the same problem-solving skills as a 5-year-old human,” Adam Kovarsky, Save The Bay’s lead aquarist, said. “It’s really good to give them various kinds of enrichment; we give them different toys.”
Common octopi are the only octopus species found in Narragansett Bay and off the New England coast, according to Kovarsky.
The jar-opening octopus was brought to Save The Bay’s Newport facility last fall by a local fisherman who knew the seven-armed visitor wouldn’t survive the winter in Rhode Island’s chilly waters. It came under Kovarsky’s care missing one of its limbs, which, he said, grew back in about seven months.
“There’s no year-round breeding population of any octopus species in Narragansett Bay,” Kovarsky said. “The only ones that we see within the bay are what we would consider a ‘Gulf Stream orphan.’ Their year-round range is more south or tropical than here, so what happens is eggs or juveniles get washed into Narragansett Bay by the Gulf Stream current. They do great here in the summer, but as it gets colder and colder, they try to migrate south, but most likely they don’t make it back to warmer waters before it gets too cold for them to survive.”
A younger common octopus, rescued more recently by a local lobsterman, will also live out its remaining life under Kovarsky’s care. The species lives, on average, for about two years, but some can live for up to three years or so. They can reach up to nearly 4 feet in length including arms.
“Any ones that we get, we try and give them good forever homes, because they’re just not going to make it,” he said.
They live in separate tanks, because, as Kovarsky noted, they are “extremely aggressive with each other” and “they’ll kill each other very quickly.”
“They really can’t live with anything you don’t mind losing at some point,” he said with a laugh.
The Atlantic silversides “sharing” the tanks with Kovarsky’s two common octopuses won’t be around long.
When he spoke to ecoRI News about octopuses, Kovarsky reeled off a list of adjectives to describe them: amazing, beautiful, interactive, clever, sophisticated. He noted that during his 15 years working for Save The Bay he has found more than one common octopus out of its tank. Their Houdini disappearing act has since been solved.
“An adult common octopus can fit through a hole the size of a dime,” Kovarsky said. “That’s a three-and-a-half-foot-long animal squishing right through. It’s only restricted by any hard parts on its body, so the beak where the mouth is is the largest hard spot on its body and that’s just under the size of a dime.”
Octopuses have the ability to recognize people. Scientific American reported a story from the University of Otago in New Zealand where a captive octopus apparently took a dislike (or crush?) to one of the staff. Every time the person passed the tank, the octopus squirted a jet of water at her.
They also can cause mischief. In at least two aquariums, octopuses have learned to turn off the lights by squirting jets of water at the bulbs and short-circuiting the power supply, according to the 2017 story. At the University of Otago, this game became so expensive that the octopus had to be released back into the wild.
Octopuses are soft-bodied, eight-limbed mollusks of the order Octopoda. The order consists of about 300 species and is grouped within the class Cephalopoda with squids, cuttlefish, and nautiloids.
The nocturnal animals are known for their rounded bodies, bulging eyes, and their long arms. They have the ability to camouflage, release ink as a defense mechanism, and regenerate lost limbs. They have three hearts.
Each of their sucker-covered arms contains its own “mini-brain.” Each limb is capable of acting independently, to taste, touch, and move without direction. This setup enables octopi to complete tasks more quickly and effectively. About two-thirds of their 500 million neurons are in their arms.
Research has shown they seem to experience pain, according to a recent story in WIRED.
“Almost all animals have a reflex for responding to noxious stimuli, called nociception, but not all are aware that the sensation is bad or unpleasant — an awareness scientists now think octopuses and other cephalopods have,” Emily Mullin reported. “Some scientists say this is proof of sentience, the capacity to experience feelings and sensations.”
The state of cephalopod science has prompted the National Institutes of Health to consider whether these marine animals deserve the same research protections as vertebrates, according to the Oct. 6 story.
The 300 octopus species have various lifespans and come in various sizes — from the giant Pacific octopus, the world’s largest, to the world’s smallest, the wolfi octopus.
Giant Pacific octopuses can grow up to 30 feet wide from the tip of one arm to the tip of another and weigh up to 150 pounds (the largest on record weighed 156 pounds). They can live for up to 5 years, but the average is 2-3 years.
Wolfi octopuses, also know as the star-sucker pygmy octopus, grow no bigger than a bottle cap at 1 inch and weigh no more than a raisin at about a gram. They also have the shortest lifespan, about 6 months.
Octopi are much more than appetizers and entrées.
“The octopus is pure protean possibility. There is no clear boundary between body and mind in a form with no hard parts, suffused with more neurons in its radius of arms than in its brain,” said Dr. Ha Nguyen, in “The Mountain in the Sea.” “The octopus is a mind unbounded by bone — shape-shifting flesh permeated with neural connectivity, exploring its world with liquid curiosity.”
Note: Save The Bay’s Exploration Center & Aquarium is currently closed to the public as it is in the process of being moved to its new downtown location. The new facility, expected to open this winter, is about six times the size of the current location.