Octopuses are mysterious sea creatures to many people, including in Alaska, where more commercially viable and — dare we say — charismatic animals get the most attention.
After all, octopuses do live mostly solitary lives, hiding under rocks, changing color and shape to blend into their surroundings, grabbing prey with their sucker-lined arms and pulling it into their sharp beaks.
But our understanding of their biology and behavior has advanced greatly in the last three decades or so, thanks in part to a professor of marine biology at Alaska Pacific University, Dr. David Scheel. Scheel has a book out called “Many Things Under A Rock: The Mysteries of Octopuses,” which is the culmination of many hours spent investigating octopuses underwater and in tide pools, with help from coastal Alaska’s Indigenous people.
David Scheel: Yeah, so the study started as an oil spill-related study. But in the end, we weren’t able to say very much about the impact of the oil spill on the octopuses, because there really wasn’t any pre-oil spill data or studies. And the people who had been most interested in the octopuses in Alaska, pre-oil spill, seem to have been the Alaska Natives, because that’s an important part of their subsistence culture in many of the coastal communities. And so in the early days of my work with octopuses, some of the elders took me out foraging and collecting octopuses. And that was how I learned to find them, initially. And so I designed my early study around the ways that the Alaska Natives harvested the octopuses and, you know, they’re just doing it the same way it’s been done for a long time. And so they’re not using scuba diving gear, right? So that’s how it started. But then, when I was getting funding from my early work, I was asked by the funding agency to add scuba diving.
Casey Grove: It seems like there were a lot of unknowns there. And maybe part of that was, you know, the unknown of your own safety in that situation.
David Scheel: You have to bear in mind, my divers have four limbs, the octopus has eight. So we’re at a disadvantage to begin with. And so it was a question for me to try and solve is, ‘How big do these guys get?’ You know, that’s not a question with a definitive answer, but the Alaska Pacific octopus does routinely get up to about 100 pounds or more, and occasionally much larger. And so that’s a size that’s big enough that we wanted to be careful how we handled them, because we didn’t want to put anyone at risk. But we also weren’t interested in killing or harvesting the octopuses. We wanted to weigh them, measure them, find out whether they’re males and females and put them back.
Casey Grove: And then, is it fair to say, I mean beyond that, that you’ve discovered they have a certain intelligence?
David Scheel: Yeah, a lot has been written about octopus intelligence, and for the most part, that hasn’t been a central subject of my research. But, you know, the stuff that I do, particularly up here in Alaska, is looking at what they’re eating and how they’re choosing their diet, and things like that. And even there, you can see threads of behavior that reveal how their cognition works and what kinds of choices they’re making.
And one of my favorite examples that I talked about in “Many Things Under A Rock” is octopuses prefer larger species of prey. And so they’re eating small crabs, but they’re choosing the bigger species of the crabs in Prince William Sound. And so what does that actually mean the octopus is doing? Well, first of all, they have to be able to judge size, but then they’re also using restraint. We know that they’re passing up small, immediate rewards in order to look for larger rewards in the future. They are very clever animals. But really, I think the building blocks of octopus intelligence are really curiosity, persistence and flexibility. So they’re always exploring things. They’re reluctant to give up. And if one thing doesn’t work, they’ll try something else. And I really think that’s where a lot of intelligence comes from, including in humans.
Casey Grove: That’s interesting, yeah. So there are many ways that that yourself and other researchers have gone into the ocean to look at different animals, and in your case octopuses, and then you sort of famously also have had an octopus living in your house.
David Scheel: Yeah, you’re referring to the PBS documentary “Octopus: Making Contact.” And that was originally envisioned as sort of “a scientist and the octopus he keeps in his home.” But fortunately, my daughter Laurel — who’s the illustrator for the book, by the way, she has done some marvelous drawings to put the book — she kind of bonded with Heidi (the octopus). And so that really changed the whole nature of of that documentary and made it, in some ways, this this charming piece about a girl and her octopus, which I think was much better story than a scientist and his octopus.
Casey Grove: Well, I can imagine that you both had a lot of interactions with Heidi. And so I wondered, I mean, were there things that you felt like by having her in your home that you learned that you would not have otherwise?
David Scheel: Yeah, Heidi was great to have in the home. And one of the things that happened is that she really wanted to interact with us. And I was surprised to find- I had my desk setup, when I would work from home, where I could have a really good view of the aquarium that Heidi was in. And Heidi would get up, she would see me at my desk, and she would get up out of her den and come to the nearest corner of the tank, and then she would go up and down, from the surface of the water to the bottom, from the surface of the water, up and down until I would look up. And then she would, you know, she didn’t wave or anything like that, because that’s not a natural behavior for octopuses, as far as we know, but she would change her behavior a little bit, notice me noticing her, and she wanted me to get up and come and play with her. And if I didn’t, if I tried to get back to work, out of the corner of my eye, I would see her doing that pacing behavior again.
Casey Grove: One interesting thing about octopuses — I mean, other animals as well — but they they dream, right? And how can you tell that they’re dreaming?
David Scheel: Yeah, the question of octopus dreaming is a fascinating one. And I got involved with it through making that PBS documentary,.The cinematographer there, the photographer, was just brilliant. He caught this lovely sequence of Heidi asleep and going through all these bodily changes. And if you look at it, there’s only one thing that you think is happening, you think the octopus is dreaming. You know, what we know about dreaming is anchored in part in having a dream and then talking to people about dreaming so it’s anchored in language. But it’s not entirely anchored in language. There are other things that reveal dreaming. If you can know how the body pattern of an octopus changes in different contexts that are ecologically relevant in their life, like the difference between foraging for prey and escaping a predator, then those body patterns are mimicked in the proper order during sleep, that is very suggestive of dreaming. And studies in humans have shown that our eye movements during REM sleep will actually track what we’re looking at in our dreams. So if you’re dreaming of a tennis match, for example, your eyes during REM sleep are going back and forth following the ball. And so we know that humans do this kind of thing. Their sleep behavior while dreaming reveals content of the dream. So why wouldn’t that be true for octopuses as well?
Casey Grove: It seems like people, you know, with certain animals and how we think about them, for humans, it’s like easier to relate to another primate. And obviously, octopuses are very different from that. And as people sort of begin to understand and begin to acknowledge the intelligence in this creature, are they then, I guess, more obligated to help protect them?
David Scheel: Well, I think it’s very easy for us to identify with octopuses. I mean, they’ve got the same kind of vision we do. And they’re particularly, once you learn to work with them a little bit, they’re very enamored of touch. And we are, too, and so they become very endearing animals. And when you add to that, sort of this notion of octopus awareness — right? — that they have inner lives, that they experience hunger and fear or, you know, that they might be dreaming and having dreams and nightmares, then it becomes very easy to identify with them.
But in terms of what does that mean, how should we behave? That’s a question that’s more about us than it is about octopuses themselves. So maybe, you know, you get to a point where, like me, you think, “Well, I’m just not going to eat any of these animals that I, you know, feel attached to.” I don’t eat octopuses anymore because their behavior. You know, that’s more interesting to me than any culinary experience I could have with an octopus. But that really says something about our culture, particularly. And then if you look at Indigenous cultures was harvest some of these animals, they have a very different relationship, right? Because to them, this is part of their cultural heritage. It’s part of how they relate to the world. It’s part of how Indigenous cultures see people, not as separate from nature, but as part of nature. Octopuses have to eat, right? And they eat clams and crabs. Well, people have to eat as well. And so when you’re looking at these choices, my feeling is that you have to place them in the proper context. The properties of the animal alone do not determine how we should relate to that animal.