Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads

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#StevesLibrary: The Soul of an Octopus

It isn’t often that you read a book that makes you revaluate the relationship between humans and animals, as much as The Soul of an Octopus did. I’m not going to lie, for a while I had a fear of octopuses – before spending some time to research them, and watch documentaries about them (such as My Octopus Teacher). There is certainly something otherworldly about them, something that makes them seem very alien. This combined with their almost sinister public image means that most people don’t seem to understand them properly. To some, octopuses may be the stuff of nightmares. They were certainly used as inspiration of the mythical kraken, and other tales told by sailors. To me, these tales were more a product of spending months at sea, and to make the sailors seem more macho than they were. These thoughts aside, octopuses still suffer from an image problem but Sy Montgomery seeks to shatter that in this book. Instead she demonstrates that octopuses are clever, intelligent beings and caring mothers. In doing so, she removes octopuses from the circle of monsters and into that of our friends, on the great Venn diagram of life.

You’re probably asking yourself how Montgomery achieves this somewhat impossible goal. Well, she goes to the most reliable source possible. An aquarium. I’ve seen octopuses in aquaria before, but I’ve never had the chance to interact with them. That’s where Montgomery changes everything. She makes friends with several octopuses over the course of a few years held at the New England Aquarium. This is an ingenious idea! How better than to get to know an octopus, meet the same individual several times, and to really get to know them? Unfortunately, in the wild octopuses are extremely hard to locate and usually live quite short lives. In an aquarium setting, you can guarantee being able to find the same octopus again (as long as they’re willing to cooperate). By doing so, Montgomery shows that octopuses are friendly and inquisitive creatures, each having their own personalities and a passion for playing. Who would have known?

The most heartbreaking things Montgomery learns throughout her journey are the impacts they have on people’s lives. This may be when the octopuses expire, or when we try to equate their lives to ours. Females die shortly after the hatching of their eggs, which is the final hoorah in their short lives. Only 1 in 100,000 of the young produced will reach adulthood, the rest will be eaten by the other creatures of the sea. It is hypothesised that octopuses evolved their smarts as a response to losing their shell. As a mollusc, they are essentially an eight-legged bundle of protein – the perfect meal for a hungry predator. How does an octopus survive to adulthood? They need to outwit their predators and learn a wide range of techniques to catch prey. All of this, provides the basis of their intelligence. Montgomery really does have a deep and personal connection with the octopuses at the New England Aquarium, no matter how tragically these end. In my eyes, The Soul of an Octopus is a must-read for anyone interested in animal intelligence, as well as those who wish to understand more about our place on the planet.

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