The Mysterious Octopus
Octopuses are getting so trendy I counted seven different styles of octopus dog toys at the local Petco last week. In catalogs you’ll find even more different brands and styles of dog toys plus octopus paperweights, picture frames, door stops, doorknockers, chandeliers and Amazon sells four different brands of canned octopus. One of the most interesting creatures living in the sea is the octopus – whether it’s a Giant Pacific octopus that has grown to 30 feet and weighs 600 pounds or just a small Common octopus that weighs less than 20 pounds. Grouped with squid and cuttlefish, they have been studied more intensively since scientists discovered that they are the most intelligent invertebrates and are an important example of advanced cognitive evolution in animals. If you compare the octopus brain and number of neurons with those of dogs, you come close to the number of dog neurons. Octopuses have three hearts and nine brains. They have eight arms that are webbed to get them through the water. Their arms can independently taste and touch, each arm having its own brain and neurons. Each arm has hundreds of sensors in each of its suckers. Smaller octopuses live close to a year and the largest live only about four years. After giving birth, they die. There are over 200 types of octopuses. Most are small, with a spread of one to three feet and weighing 6 to 10 pounds, with the Pacific Ocean yielding the largest variety, the Giant Pacific octopus. Several of the more interesting varieties are the Blue-Ringed octopus, the Common Atlantic octopus, the Atlantic Pygmy octopus and the Giant Pacific octopus. Blue-Ringed octopus live about six months, are small, but their venom is deadly. One bite will paralyze you and all your bodily functions including breathing unless you are given artificial respiration until the effects of the venom wear off. They are common in Australian waters. Common Atlantic octopuses are the most available and thus the most studied of all octopus species. They come from the Mediterranean Sea, off the southern coast of England to Africa and the Azores, Canary and Cape Verde Islands and from Texas and Florida to New England. They are usually small, 12” to 36”, and only live 12 to 18 months. They can weight up to 20 pounds. The Pacific Giant Octopus is the largest of all octopus species and usually grows to 15 feet and weighs 150 pounds The largest ever measured was 30 feet and weighed 600 pounds. These octopuses live longer. The natural lifespan of a Pacific Giant octopus is three years. The Atlantic Pygmy octopus is very small (5-1/2” including its arms), is playful and very intelligent, but it has a very short life. To mate, male octopuses must get their sperm into the female’s mantle, her body. One of the male arms is equipped as a mating arm that functions like his other seven arms but when used for mating, it has a groove through which the sperm are delivered. Although males are willing to start the next generation, the females sometimes strangle and eat the male, who is often smaller. Males have used their intelligence and creativity to get around this problem. They sometimes send their mating arm out by itself, sometimes disguise themselves as females and often wait until the female is foraging for food. Because of their curiosity, intellect and personality, octopuses can become interesting pets. Smart enough to learn how to unscrew jar tops to get the food inside the jar, they are also escape artists that can fold up their arms and bodies into a tiny ball to squeeze through openings and get out of their tanks and into others that contain fish. They eat the fish and return to their own tanks. They’ve learned how to turn off lights in aquariums by squirting water at the light bulbs and short- circuiting the power supply. Lobstermen say octopuses raid their lobster traps. They also eat crabs, shrimp, clams and scallops, using their sharp beaks to break the shells before sucking out the contents. They exhibit play behavior when given toys. Only intelligent animals (dogs, chimps, humans) are mentally equipped to play. They are shy and take time to establish relationships with humans. If you have any thoughts about turning part of your house into an aquarium and buying a pet octopus, keep in mind their short lifespan and high maintenance while they’re alive. If you don’t know one from another, a supplier could sell you a dwarf species with a short time to live and tell you it was a young one. The most popular octopuses for the home pet owner are the Algae octopus, the California Two-spot octopus and the Atlantic Pygmy octopus. The Algae species is small and is active during the day. The California two-spot is the most popular because of its friendly nature. The Atlantic Pygmy is small, intelligent and playful. You’d need to be able to trust the supplier of your pet octopus to be sure you weren’t buying one past its prime or pregnant (they die after giving birth.) The world’s supply of octopuses is being challenged by the growing interest worldwide in cooking and eating them. Although fishermen’s cooperatives in Spain grow small octopuses in sea cages, selling them at high prices at Christmas and in the summer when the demand is high, they work with juveniles, bringing them up to a size they can get top dollar for, much the same as we grow turkeys to sell at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Those who had thoughts of octopus aquaculture have had to reconsider because of the difficulty replicating the conditions in which they grow. Once the eggs hatch they are in a paralarvae stage where they drift among the plankton they feed on in the ocean. It’s this stage of their life and growth that would not be easy for aqua-culturists to work with. The next step, getting the paralarvae to juvenile stage is a peak period in octopus mortality. The best candidate for aquaculture is the Mexican Four-Eyed octopus that is ready for adult life immediately after hatching. Most of the octopuses sold for food are the common octopus - they are the most available species and come from diverse areas. As a food, octopus is very nutritious, very filling and low calorie. The Parea Restaurant in Huntington serves grilled octopus, which they first boil and then grill. As an appetizer or entrée they are very popular with customers and bring repeat business. Greek and Korean restaurants grill octopus, Portuguese serve it roasted, Australians pickle it and Brazilian, Ecuadorian and Mexican restaurants offer octopus salad. The chef at Pasea first boils the octopus in vinegar, then cooks it with oregano and other spices until tender, cuts it into grilling size pieces and marinates the pieces in olive oil and lemon juice for an hour before grilling on high heat. Commercial fisherman Capt. Mike Uttecht, now semi-retired, an Alaskan reader of L.I. Boating World, gets his octopus fresh off the boats in the harbor at King Cove where he lives. The fishermen find the big Pacific octopuses in their traps when they fish for cod. The small, more desirable octopuses escape and the larger ones, sometimes 25 to 30 pounds, are either used by the fishermen for bait or given to friends. For Mike, a 30-pound octopus with a spread of 5 feet represents 10 to 12 dinners. He first takes the skin off, then cuts off the suckers, turns the head inside out to clean out the innards, cuts off the beak and boils what’s left in fresh ocean water for 20 minutes. He cuts the octopus into meal size portions, freezing what he’s not currently using and adds olive oil, garlic, lemon zest, red pepper flakes and puts the octopus on a hot charcoal grill. His grill is behind the house but there are no other houses blocking his view, so while he’s grilling he can see, hear and smell the ocean, being on a rise above the ocean and about 75 yards from the surf. Mike likes the taste of the charcoal cooked octopus over the gas grill. Since it has already been cooked, he only leaves it on the grill long enough to lock in the flavor of the spices and the charcoal.