Armed and mysterious in Puget Sound
by TOM PAULSON
From SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER
Puget Sound is home to the world's largest octopus, the giant Pacific octopus, which is also the world's largest invertebrate, meaning it has no bones.
The biggest known giant Pacific octopus was 600 pounds and had an arm span of about 30 feet. Octopuses typically live from three to five years and die after breeding once.
An octopus has eight arms with about 1,500 suckers in total. It has a fairly large brain -- half of which is in its arms, with the other half encircling its throat. It has a "beak" at its mouth, which allows it to bite prey.
Octopus blood is pale blue and pumped by three hearts. The animal can travel by crawling or by "jet propulsion" -- forcing water rapidly out of the headlike mantle through a tube known as the siphon. Octopus, like squid, can squirt ink when startled or upset.
An octopus, which is in the cephalopod branch of mollusks, can change its skin color like a chameleon to hide or, according to some scientists, to reflect its "mood."
SOURCE: Seattle Aquarium
Armed and mysterious in Puget Sound
Starbuck was reluctant to ship out yesterday. He turned bright red in annoyance as Roland Anderson tried to coax him off the dock for his return trip to sea.
The 2 1/2-year-old giant Pacific octopus -- named for the character in "Moby-Dick," not the coffee -- eventually settled into quarters well below deck, in the jumble of rocks and pilings beneath the Elliott Bay pier that supports the Seattle Aquarium.
"He just hunkered down and decided to stick around," said Jeff Christiansen, chief diver for the Aquarium and Starbuck's tour guide upon reintroduction into Puget Sound yesterday.
The day before, a female octopus given the alluring name of Magic -- whom Starbuck had frustrated by refusing her amorous suggestions -- split the scene like greased lightning when Anderson released her. Hell hath no fury like a cephalopod scorned. It appeared that the sheepish Starbuck decided to stick close to shore to avoid an awkward reunion.
"They all have different personalities," Anderson noted with a shrug.
After the release of Starbuck, the Seattle Aquarium biologist went back inside to check on the latest tally from his annual octopus survey. The effort, conducted for the past four years on this three-day holiday weekend, depends on the voluntary participation of divers who help the scientists keep tabs on the local octopus population.
The survey, which last year involved about 200 divers and tallied about 70 octopuses, continues through today with results expected later this week. It is not meant to provide an accurate count of the population, Anderson noted, so much as an impression. Checking the same nesting sites every year can indicate how the octopuses are faring, he said, and may build the foundation for doing a more accurate scientific sampling in the future.
Randy Williams, along with six other members of the Marker Buoys Dive Club, reported spotting nine octopuses -- not "octopi," Anderson says -- during a dive in Hood Canal, at Sund Rock just north of Hoodsport.
"It's more than we've seen in the past years," Williams said. He and his club have been participating in the octopus survey since it started.
"One diver said he saw eight in one place down near Tacoma," said an ecstatic Anderson. That appears to be a record, he said, and indicates the population is thriving despite -- and in some cases, because of -- the long history of pollution in Puget Sound.
In the mid-1990s, Anderson and his colleagues discovered that one type of small octopus (the red octopus) liked to live in beer bottles. This finding led to new insights about what these critters eat. Much of Puget Sound is barren of cover, Anderson said, so trash such as bottles or tires does seem to be of use for some marine species.
On the other hand, the Aquarium recently stopped using crabs taken from certain areas in Puget Sound to feed the octopuses. Anderson had noticed that octopuses raised in captivity were stunted. On a hunch, he analyzed the crabs and discovered high levels of toxins.
But it isn't really the ecology of octopuses that interests this scientist. It's their psychology.
"They do have personalities," Anderson said. "They're intelligent creatures."
Such statements, within the confines of science, are a bit controversial. The notion that an octopus, the world's largest invertebrate but still a close relative of the clam, has a "personality" tends to imply a certain level of abstract thought most scientists have trouble assigning even to other mammals.
Yes, octopuses are captivating creatures and appear eerily expressive, many scientists acknowledge. But most would say that interpreting this as intelligent behavior -- as personality -- is going too far.
That's the scientific community's problem, Anderson contends.
"We're a long way from agreeing on the best way to measure intelligence, or intelligent behavior," he said. "I'm not saying they're all that smart. They're probably not as smart as a lab rat, but they seem smarter than most birds. . . . They are certainly head and shoulders above all the rest of the invertebrates."
Anderson offered anecdotal evidence to back up his claim of octopus intelligence: Years ago, a woman was hired by the Aquarium to work as the night-shift biologist. She would come in every night, shine a light on the sleeping octopus and then leave. Eventually, Anderson said, the octopus learned to recognize the woman.
"It would squirt water at her whenever she got near the tank, day or night," he said. The octopus didn't do that to anyone else.
"I can't prove it just by this story, but I think octopuses can recognize individuals," Anderson said. Proving such intelligent behavior is difficult enough, he said, without having to account for the strange brain of an octopus.
"Half of their neurons (brain cells) are in their arms," Anderson noted. "They have what you would call a peripheral brain. . . . If you cut off an octopus arm, it crawls away by itself."
The other half of the octopus brain encircles the creature's throat. Anderson said it is narrow-minded and arrogant for scientists to assume that methods based on measuring human intelligence can be applied equally to measuring intelligence -- or the lack of it -- in creatures with such distinctively different nervous systems.
Anderson, who has a doctorate in biology, is not on the fringes of the scientific establishment. He and his colleagues have published numerous scientific papers on octopus behavior. Like any scientist, he welcomes debate. But the Northwest native, the son of a sea captain, isn't waiting around for any official endorsements of his research agenda.
As the invertebrate curator for the Seattle Aquarium, Anderson has spent most of his 25 years here doing science on the side. His main job is caring for the octopuses and trying to share his love of these creatures with an interested public. Anderson and his colleagues at the Aquarium were first in the world to raise a giant Pacific octopus from the egg stage.
He is now researching sleep in octopuses, admittedly trying to prove scientifically what he already believes to be the case.
"Yes, they sleep," sighed Anderson.
Today, anyone visiting the Aquarium can witness another behavior that the Aquarium's top octopus watcher has helped document in the scientific literature. Using rubber duckies, baby rattles and other children's toys, Anderson will be overseeing "play day" for the octopus.
"It's not too impressive," he acknowledged. The octopus will likely just grab the toy, handle it or mouth it, maybe, and then toss it away. But then, Anderson said, human parents of babies that do the same thing seem positively enthralled.