The Magazine

Hello, Suckers

What you don’t know about the versatile octopus.

May 12, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 33 • By TEMMA EHRENFELD
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That need for stimulation may seem surprising in creatures with such a smallish brain; but, upsetting our assumptions again, most of their neurons are in their arms. These jointless appendages have a huge range of motion: too wide, scientists argue, to be subject entirely to centralized control. Octopuses do sometimes stiffen their pliable arms into a three-jointed appendage like ours, perhaps when the brain needs to keep track of them. Thus, the arms are both under the control of the brain and independent of it. Some species can eject an arm, which slithers off and distracts predators to chase it.  

A severed arm remains active for some time, as Courage amusingly demonstrates in a story about a Korean restaurant in Flushing, New York, where customers select a live octopus from a tank. (The manager tells Courage that, in Korea, farmers feed raw octopus to sick cows and bulls, which consequently recover from their illnesses in a day.) The octopus meal arrives cut-up but alive, along with plates of dipping sauces: “The muscular arm segments look like little slugs, writhing about, gray and stubby, seething all over one another,” Courage writes. The suckers grip the plate: “Once you do manage to get one of these dang things on your chopsticks, it will likely wrap or suction onto the wood with one end, another end twisting around in the air, as if exploring like a blind inchworm.” Inside the author’s mouth, the suckers grab her gums until she pries them off with her tongue. 

Octopus! feels a bit plumped out for length, and the author, a journalist who often contributes to Scientific American, shares too much information about her travel arrangements and upsets as she visits Spanish fishing boats and Italian laboratories. But the prose is enthusiastic, funny, and unpretentious, steering clear of the style of science writing that risks too much metaphor and speculation. The octopus remains intriguing and baffling. 

Temma Ehrenfeld is a writer in New York.