National News

The Octopus Is Trending — In More Ways Than One

Seattle’s KIRO News broke the story: “Woman sent to hospital after posing with octopus on face.” As their Kevin McCarty reported, two fisherman caught an octopus at a fishing tournament in the Tacoma Narrows August 2, and Jamie Biscegli stuck it to her face.

The move was an attempt to win a photo contest associated with the South King County Puget Sound Anglers’ 2019 Salmon Derby. 

“Looking back,” acknowledges Ms. Biscegli, “I probably made a big mistake.” 

This was the most recent instance of an octopus making international news, but it was not the first, nor is it likely to be the last.

In 2018, BBC News reported, matter-of-factly, “Seal slaps man with octopus in NZ.” Slow-motion video confirms that an anonymous seal grasped an octopus by its head, then swung it like a cat o’ nine tails, splatting the creature’s arms against the human’s face.

Octopuses (see a note on the plural here), however, rarely make the news in such a passive capacity. They make for a mischievous package, being wily, inquisitive, persistent, confoundingly intelligent. And squishy. 

On Tuesday, July 17th, the game show “Jeopardy!” rang in with an entire category on “The Octopus.” In less than a minute, we learned, in order of dollar value: 

  • The Pacific Octopus is the largest on the planet — big enough to fight and eat sharks. 
  • There is a deep sea octopus with large head fins that resembles the Disney character Dumbo.
  • The beak is the only hard part of an octopus’ body, found on the underside where its arms converge. 
  • An octopus has 3 hearts, pumping blue blood throughout its body. 
  • Octopuses are called the smartest animals without backbones. In 2009 one disassembled a valve and flooded a California aquarium.

With their radial symmetry, copper-based blood, exotic toxins and abilities to mimic not only colors, but textures, these invertebrates may be the closest thing there is to true aliens among us. In fact, one “controversial” study has suggested exactly that origin.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the octopus enjoys a devoted following among science geeks and other weirdos. Leading the pack is NPR host Ira Flatow, whose Science Friday website asks, “Sucker For Cephalopods?,” then assures, “Cephalopod Week Has You Covered.”

“For eight glorious days during the end of June,” they crow, “Science Friday honors the mighty mollusks of the ocean — Cephalopod Week returns for the sixth year! And we’re cephalo-brating with a tidal wave of ways for you to participate.”

As the sixth annual Cephalopod Week rolled around, SciFri wanted “to know your favorite cephalopod. Is it the charismatic giant Pacific octopus or the long-lived chambered nautilus?”

This was not a formal poll, but we’re guessing that octopuses fared better than the chambered nautilus, which, long-lived or not, has yet to show any interest in  Legos and Rubik’s Cubes or opening beverage bottles.

As part of the Cephalopod Week Spotlight, Science Friday offered “Cephalopod Movie Night” in ten cities nationwide. Alas, the Rocket City was not one to play host to the event, but it was hard not to get caught up in the excitement:

“Three hearts, eight arms, can’t lose. … From the cunning cuttlefish, to the superb squid, to the outstanding octopus!

…. Join us for an evening of talk, tentacles, and talent …  followed by conversations with cephalopod experts, performances, activities, and other ceph-tastic fun. Don’t be afraid to be shellfish — get your tickets before someone with four times as many arms grabs them first!”

It’s not all fun and games in Octopus-world, however. Journalist Katherine Harmon Courage has outlined scientific studies that may contribute to knowledge on human brain damage and plasticity, climate change, locomotion, decision-making and genomics.

As science is becoming increasingly aware, the octopus offers human beings a practical insight on a profoundly non-human intelligence. An occasional glance into octopus news is a fine way to stay up on a broad variety of cutting edge fields of research. 

But please, for the safety and convenience of all concerned, try to keep them away from your face.

About the author

Brad Hall

Brad Hall

Brad Hall is a pastor and the author of "Lousy Roger and Other Tales: A collection of Lectionary-based Sermons," available on Amazon.com. In 2014, after 27 years of courtship, he married pop culture scholar Deborah Ann Miller. They share a place with two dogs, Scotty and Demitasse, and two cats, Quirkie and Brucie.

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