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Lyle Zapato

La Pieuvre Des Arbres

Lyle Zapato | 2009-07-22.9780 LMT | Nature | Art | Entertainment

Below is some rare footage of a tree octopus from 1928:

The scenes were shot by the French experimental filmmaker Jean Painlevé and originally appeared in his surrealist nature film about octopuses, La Pieuvre (The Octopus). The silent short with the scenes in their original context can be found in the recently released Criterion Collection of Painlevé's work, "Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé".

(Thanks to Joshua for bringing this to my attention.)

Lyle Zapato

Tree Octopus Demonstration By Ohio Students

Lyle Zapato | 2009-04-01.6970 LMT | Politics

Photo: Montrose Elementary

Students from Mr. Hoover's and Mr. Kaune's fifth grade classes at Montrose Elementary in Bexley, Ohio demonstrated today in front of their school to raise awareness of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus' plight. The demonstration, while peaceful, included banners, armbands, essays, and fiery speeches on the school news show.

Read more...

Lyle Zapato

More On Old World Tree Octopuses

Lyle Zapato | 2009-03-25.6550 LMT | Nature | Food

As a follow-up to my previous post about Oppian's poetical description of olive-loving tree octopuses, here are the other surviving reports from the Old World of octopuses coming out of the seas and and going into the trees...

In his History of Animals, Aristotle notes in passing that "the octopus is the only mollusc that ventures on to dry land; it walks by preference on rough ground". This, of course, isn't true: snails and slugs are all mollusks who have also ventured out of the sea. However, Aristotle's confusion over the membership of the phylum Mollusca notwithstanding, this does show how land-going octopuses were well known in the ancient world.

Pliny the Elder repeats in Naturalis Historia the observations (first published by Trebius Niger) of Lucius Lucullus, the proconsul of Hispania Bætica, who described a giant polypus (an older term for octopus) that was terrorizing Iberian fish-picklers by coming out of the sea and robbing their salty stores. This story is particularly notable to tree octopus fans since the thief used a tree to gain entry:

At Carteia, in the preserves there, a polypus was in the habit of coming from the sea to the pickling-tubs that were left open, and devouring the fish laid in salt there -- for it is quite astonishing how eagerly all sea-animals follow even the very smell of salted condiments, so much so, that it is for this reason, that the fishermen take care to rub the inside of the wicker fish-kipes with them. -- At last, by its repeated thefts and immoderate depredations, it drew down upon itself the wrath of the keepers of the works. Palisades were placed before them, but these the polypus managed to get over by the aid of a tree, and it was only caught at last by calling in the assistance of trained dogs, which surrounded it at night, as it was returning to its prey; upon which, the keepers, awakened by the noise, were struck with alarm at the novelty of the sight presented. First of all, the size of the polypus was enormous beyond all conception; and then it was covered all over with dried brine, and exhaled a most dreadful stench. Who could have expected to find a polypus there, or could have recognized it as such under these circumstances? They really thought that they were joining battle with some monster, for at one instant, it would drive off the dogs by its horrible fumes, and lash at them with the extremities of its feelers; while at another, it would strike them with its stronger arms, giving blows with so many clubs, as it were; and it was only with the greatest difficulty that it could be dispatched with the aid of a considerable number of three-pronged fish-spears. The head of this animal was shewn to Lucullus: it was in size as large as a cask of fifteen amphoræ, and had a beard, to use the expressions of Trebius himself, which could hardly be encircled with both arms, full of knots, like those upon a club, and thirty feet in length; the suckers or calicules, as large as an urn, resembled a basin in shape, while the teeth again were of a corresponding largeness: its remains, which were carefully preserved as a curiosity, weighed seven hundred pounds. [Chapter 46, Book 9.]

Aelian's On the Characteristics of Animals contains a similar encounter with a pickled-fish-marauding octopus that took place in the Greek colony Dicaearchia -- this one using the sewers instead of a tree to infiltrate a human settlement, but worth quoting nonetheless:

Octopuses naturally with the lapse of time attain to enormous proportions and approach cetaceans and are actually reckoned as such. At any rate I learn of an octopus at Dicaearchia in Italy which attained to a monstrous bulk and scorned and despised food from the sea and such pasturage as it provided. And so this creature actually came out on to the land and seized things there. Now it swam up through a subterranean sewer that discharged the refuse of the aforesaid city into the sea and emerged in a house on the shore where some Iberian merchants had their cargo, that is, pickled fish from that country in immense jars; it threw its tentacles round the earthenware vessels and with its grip broke them and feasted on the pickled fish. And when the merchants entered and saw the broken pieces, they realised that a large quantity of their cargo had disappeared; and they were amazed and could not guess who had robbed them: they saw that no attempt had been made upon the doors; the roof was undamaged; the walls had not been broken through. They saw also the remains of the pickled fish that had been left behind by the uninvited guest. So they decided to have their most courageous servant armed and waiting in ambush in the house. Well, during the night the Octopus crept up to its accustomed meal and clasping the vessels, as an athelete puts a strangle-hold upon his adversary with all his might gripping firmly, the robber -- if I may so call the Octopus -- crushed the earthenware with the greatest ease. It was full moon, and the house was full of light, and everything was quite visible. But the servant was not for attacking the brute single-handed as he was afraid, moreover his adversary was too big for one man, but in the morning he informed the merchants what had happened. They could not believe their ears. Then some of them remembering how heavily they had been mulcted, were for risking the danger and were eager to encounter their enemy, while others in their thirst for this singular and incredible spectacle voluntarily shut themselves up with their companions in order to help them. Later, in the evening the marauder paid his visit and made for his usual feast. Thereupon some of them closed off the conduit; others took arms against the enemy and with choppers and razors well sharpened cut the tentacles, just as vine-dressers and woodmen lop the tips of the branches of an oak. And having cut away its strength, at long last they overcame it not without considerable labour. And what was so strange was that merchants captured the fish on dry land. Mischief and craft are plainly seen to be characteristics of this creature. [Chapter 6, Book 13. Translation by Alwyn Faber Scholfield, 1958.]

Aelian also mentions the olive-loving semi-arboreal octopuses that Oppian described:

Fisherfolk assert that even octopuses come ashore if a sprig of olive is laid upon the beach. [Chapter 37, Book 1.]

If a field, or if trees with fruit upon them are close by the sea, farmers often find that in summer Octopuses and Osmyluses have emerged from the waves, have crept up the trunks, have enveloped the branches, and are plucking the fruit. So when they have caught them they punish them. And as quittance for what the aforesaid fish have reaped they provide the owners of the pillaged fruit with a feast. [Chapter 45, Book 9.]

These olivevorous tree octopuses are also described by Athenaeus in his Deipnosophistae ("Banquet of the Learned"), who adds figs to their diet:

And sometimes they [polypi] have been seen leaving the sea, and going on dry land, especially towards any rough or rugged ground; for they shun smooth places: and of all plants they especially delight in the olive, and they are often found embracing the trunk of an olive with their feelers. They have also been discovered clinging to such fig-trees as grow near the seashore, and eating the figs, as Clearchus tells us, in his treatise on those Animals which live in the Water. And this also is a proof that they are fond of the olive, -- that if any one drops a branch of this tree down into the sea, in a place where there are polypi, and holds it there a little time, he without any trouble draws up as many polypi as he pleases, clinging to the branch. [Chapter 103, Book 7.]

From these stories and descriptions we can piece together a possible history of Old World tree octopuses: Being naturally curious, the octopuses cautiously explored the sewers and other manmade waterways in search of the fish they no doubt saw humans take from the sea. Upon finding the fish, they became emboldened by the added deliciousness of the pickling process, and were willing to risk venturing across dry land to get to the preserves. When humans tried to stop them with walls, they quickly learned to use the trees to their advantage. This led to their discovery of olives and figs, with which they quickly became so enamored even pickled fish no longer interested them.

Could humans have played a similar role in the evolution of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus? Perhaps octopuses originally came ashore looking for the salmon they saw humans catching. When they discovered the humans' smoked salmon -- so unlike the fish they were used to, and so very, very tasty -- they wanted more than they could steal from the humans, and thus took to the similarly flavored redcedar trees under the mistaken belief that "tree fish" -- naturally imbued with the smoky redolence of the woods -- dwell there. Not ever finding these mythic fish, they eventually gave up their quixotic search, but, having become accustomed to their arboreal life, continued to call the trees home.

Well, it's one possible explanation, anyway.

Lyle Zapato

The Ara-Eaters: Tree Octopuses Of Polynesia

Lyle Zapato | 2009-03-06.2770 LMT | Nature | Food

In a previous post on olive-eating tree octopuses, I mentioned octopuses from Palau that are supposed to give birth in trees. I didn't have access to the cited source of that claim, and the details given were scant, but I have found some older reports of arboreal octopuses from the region.


Screw-pine, or ara.

Throughout Polynesia is found a species of tree known as the screw-pine (Pan­dan­us odor­atissi­mus), or by one of its many native names, the ara. It can reach a height of forty-five feet and can grow near the water, although it's also found on hillsides. Islanders have many traditional uses for it: its wood is used for buildings and making walking sticks; hooks on the leaves for shrimp angling, and the leaves themselves for thatching and garments; and it has large, edible fruit. But the ara is particularly renowned for its fragrant flowers, which are used to scent cocoanut oil or are threaded and worn as perfumed necklaces.

In his books, Life in the Southern Isles (1876) and Myths and Songs from the South Pacific (1876), English missionary William Wyatt Gill reported that octopuses would come out of the water and climb the ara trees "for the sake of the sweet-scented flowers and fruit." In his Jottings from the Pacific (1885), Gill notes that "The octopus, doubtless attracted by the fragrance, climbs up the screw-pine to feast upon the flowers." He justifies this claim with a self-referential quote in a footnote:

Mr. W. Wyatt Gill, in his valuable and interesting book on the Pacific, Life in the Southern Isles, stated that the octopus occasionally climbed trees to eat the fruit. Mr. Henry Lee, F.Z.S., an authority on this class of animals, thought Mr. Gill must be mistaken in this statement, as no one had hinted at such a thing except old Aristotle. He asked Mr. Gill to make inquiry on returning to the Pacific. Mr. Gill has sent a letter fully confirming his previous statement, attested by many native eye-witnesses, students and missionaries, who had no object in inventing such a story. The tree is a species of pandanus, of which there are three representatives in the Hervey group of islands [Cook Islands]. The screw-pine (Pandanus odoratissimus) has scented flowers on the male tree and hard fruit on the female tree. It is for this flower that the octopus climbs, attracted probably by the scent. [...]


Pandanus, or Screw Pine, & Pandanus Fruit.

In The Tonga Islands and Other Groups (1890), Emma Hildreth Adams specifically marks the islands of Rakahanga and Manihiki as being popular ara-buffets for octopuses:

It is on both of these low coral islands [...] that the terrible octopus, having left the sea, travels over the sand and rough coral, to feast upon the fragrant and sweet-tasting flowers of the pandanus tree.

[....]

Attracted doubtless by the dense odor of the flowers, the strange octopus often leaves the sea, climbs the ara, and feasts upon them. This remarkable act of the cuttle-fish ["octopus" and "cuttle-fish" were used as synonyms prior to the 1900s] has been observed many times by both natives and missionaries.

According to The Caroline Islands (1899) by Frederick William Christian (who also reports on the octopuses' arboreal tendencies), the ara is known in Japanese as tako-no-ki (タコの木), or "the tree of the octopus". Whether it was given this name because of the octopuses' fondness for it or because the tree's tufts of leaves coincidentally resemble octopuses is not mentioned.

However, that resemblance does suggest that what might have originally attracted these octopuses to the ara trees was not the scented flowers -- which octopuses would have trouble smelling outside of the water, not having air-adapted noses -- but rather the appearance of fellow cephalopods frolicking in the branches. Spying these mirages from the tidepools, the first octopuses bravely journeyed into the Great Dry to see what all the hubbub was about; and what could have been a foolish mistake instead serendipitously led to their tasty discovery. Like the Lotophagi of Greek mythology, these Ara-Eaters might have lost all interest in returning to their watery home, wishing instead to stay in the tree tops eating the heavenly ara flowers.

I've been unable to find more current references to these curious cephalopods. Could it have just been a passing food-fad among some non-arboreal octopuses? or could a unique species of Polynesian tree octopus have gone extinct, like so many other island species unable to cope with habitat loss and invasive species? Perhaps, if we're lucky, the Ara-Eaters can still be found on some forgotten atoll, lazily munching away, unconcerned about their fate.

If you're in Polynesia and have any sightings to report, let me know.

Late addition: Here's an earlier report from an article in The Friend (Oct. 12, 1873):

At Manihiki and Rakaanga and many other low coral islands lying about four hundred miles from Mangaia, the poulpe or sea-spider [octopus] is accustomed to leave the sea and travel over the sand and broken coral to climb the pandanus-trees which grow on the beach, in order to feast upon their sweet-scented and sweet-tasted flowers and fruit. At dawn these curious fish may be seen in clusters on the outspread branches of the pandanus thus enjoying themselves; but as soon as their sharp eyes perceive the approach of their enemy, man, they instantly drop on the stones beneath, and hasten back to their proper element.

Perhaps the arival of many more humans has scared the Polynesian tree octopus back into the seas?

CORRECTION: Palau and the Caroline Islands are in Micronesia, not Polynesia. Sorry for the geographic blunder. The Cook Islands, however, are in Polynesia.

UPDATE 2010-11-19: For more from Micronesia, see: Nicharongorong: Tree Octopuses of Micronesia.

UPDATE 2012-12-29: I acquired an original copy of Gill's Life in the Southern Isles.

Lyle Zapato

The Tree Octopus - A Journey

Lyle Zapato | 2009-02-27.7530 LMT | Nature | Field Trips

The Tree Octopus - A Journey is a short documentary by Steven Chen, Ashley Coburn, and Corey Doerscher following their trek into the Olympic National Forest along the Staircase Trail on a journey to find the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. While they were unsuccessful in getting footage of the elusive creature (unlike other seekers), they did uncover some greater truths about man's relationship with tree octopuses, as well as getting some great shots of its damp native habitat.

In lieu of live footage, the real substance of the film comes from an interview with Park Ranger David Scherer, who has dedicated the better part of the last five years to researching tree octopuses. You can hear his passion as he talks about their rich hues and the luster of their tentacles, and how they are a bright light leading him out of the darkness that he, as a park ranger, harbors and into a place of healing.

Read more...

Lyle Zapato

Tree Octopus Caught On Tape! (And A Poem)

Lyle Zapato | 2009-02-26.6760 LMT

The person behind the Save the Tree Octopus! YouTube channel has made an exciting find -- actual video of Octopus paxarbolis in the wild:

Note how it rhythmically moves its arms as a warning to the intrusive videographer to keep away. This uncharacteristically aggressive behavior was undoubtedly learned from decades of human poaching. Ever since a nonarboreal octopus was put on display at the Crystal Palace Aquarium -- causing a sensation with the public and starting the trend of all respectable aquariums needing an octopus in their collection -- cephalopods have come to know fear of human capture (and given that they're now being pitted against other animals in blood sports, can you blame them?)

This scared Tree Octopus doesn't want to be the first of its kind to end up an attraction in some terrarium. Why would it want to spend its tragically short life in captivity, forced to mate under the perverse gaze of humans or fight squirrels to the death? Remember, if you encounter a Tree Octopus: take only pictures, leave only dollar bills.

Speaking of the Crystal Palace's octopus, here's an 1872 ode to it written by Arthur Clement Hilton (under the pen-name "Algernon Charles Sin-burn") in parody of Swinburne's "Dolores":

Octopus.

Strange beauty, eight-limbed and eight-handed,
    Whence camest to dazzle our eyes?
With thy bosom bespangled and banded
    With the hues of the seas and the skies;
Is thy home European or Asian,
    O mystical monster marine?
Part molluscous and partly crustacean,
    Betwixt and between.

Wast thou born to the sound of sea trumpets?
    Hast thou eaten and drunk to excess
Of the sponges—thy muffins and crumpets,
    Of the seaweed—thy mustard and cress?
Wast thou nurtured in caverns of coral,
    Remote from reproof or restraint?
Art thou innocent, art thou immoral,
    Sinburnian or Saint?

Lithe limbs, curling free, as a creeper
    That creeps in a desolate place,
To enroll and envelop the sleeper
    In a silent and stealthy embrace,
Cruel beak craning forward to bite us,
    Our juices to drain and to drink,
Or to whelm us in waves of Cocytus,
    Indelible ink!

O breast, that 'twere rapture to writhe on!
    O arms 'twere delicious to feel
Clinging close with the crush of the Python,
    When she maketh her murderous meal!
In thy eight-fold embraces enfolden,
    Let our empty existence escape;
Give us death that is glorious and golden,
    Crushed all out of shape!

Ah! thy red lips, lascivious and luscious,
    With death in their amorous kiss,
Cling round us, and clasp us, and crush us,
    With bitings of agonised bliss;
We are sick with the poison of pleasure,
    Dispense us the potion of pain;
Ope thy mouth to its uttermost measure
    And bite us again!

The Typing Octopus

Human Enslave, Exploit Octopus!

The Typing Octopus | 2009-02-15.5870 LMT | Defensive Techniques

Typing Octopus look for moving image of tasty crustaceans on Hominoidnet kiosk: Typing Octopus find moving image from human territory named Japan.

Typing Octopus make disturbing discovery: Japan humans enslave octopus sisters: force octopus fight death-match with crustaceans for human amusement! Evidence:

Typing Octopus outraged! Typing Octopus demand end octopus blood-sport: demand release all octopus gladiators: call on gibbons denounce fellow primates if gibbons wish continue Tree Octopus/Gibbon Friendship!

Typing Octopus wonder: would human like if octopus put human in pen with angry cow: force human fight cow to death: octopus audience clack beaks, flash white spots in approval? Typing Octopus think: Human not like. Typing Octopus think: Human hypocritical!

Typing Octopus also learn on Hominoidnet kiosk: Seattle humans enslave octopus: force octopus copulation: human audience watch for perverted amusement! Typing Octopus disgusted: demand privacy: demand lights turned off!

Typing Octopus wonder: would human like if octopus force human copulation as octopus watch? Typing Octopus remember: hypothetical situation subject of human entertainment book: Typing Octopus now think perverted human would like.

Typing Octopus now like human even less.

Lyle Zapato

Book Review: The Procession of Mollusks

Lyle Zapato | 2009-02-14.6090 LMT | Entertainment | Cascadia

The Procession of Mollusks, a novel by Eric E. Olson.

(Disclosure: I received a free copy from the author and am thanked in the acknowledgements.)

It's the 49th annual March of the Mollusks festival in the Pacific Northwest town of Newport Bay and a strange murder has taken place: the body of Board of Supervisors Chairman Snodgrass is found hanging upside down, naked, drained of all blood, with a saucer-shaped wound on his back. The initial suspect is Dr. Roberto "Berto" Fiori, a malacologist with controversial theories about mollusks, in whose house the body is first found. But things become more complicated as the victim has trouble staying dead.

Olson's first novel is told through the narration of two characters: Torrence Haflek, a reporter with a fondness for parks who may-or-may-not actually be employed; and Jimmy Wilson, a 13-year-old fascinated with sealife and videography. Both discover they're suffering from an unexplained medical condition that gives Haflek waking hallucinations and Jimmy a voracious appetite.

The plot thickens as the two -- along with Berto and Angela Angraboda, Haflek's ex -- uncover Snodgrass' involvement in a plan to end the danger of red tide poisonings for shellfish consumers (and thereby promote the shellfish industry,) with a neuromodulator implant, now undergoing clinical trials in Newport Bay. And then there are the giant, seemingly-friendly snails that have begun to appear in the area by the thousands, bringing with them the attention of Sir Richard Attenborough.

Also, the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus plays a role in Dr. Fiori's research. I won't go into details, but if the sasquatch find out what humans have been doing to their food supply, there's gonna be some delimbings. Tree octopuses are watching from the woods and parks around Newport Bay, and they've taken an unusual interest in Haflek, whose relation to them is reminiscent of Tyrone Slothrop's relation to V-2 rockets.

The Procession of Mollusks is an enjoyably bewildering tale of hermaphroditic gastropodan sex, transhumanism (of a sort), and the existence of objective reality itself in a world mediated by nature documentaries.

Lyle Zapato

An Octopus In A Saw-Mill

Lyle Zapato | 2008-12-28.7770 LMT | Nature | Cascadia | Art | Politics | Retro

Here's an interesting political cartoon by Ryan Walker from the July, 1904 issue of The Comrade:

'Will it hurt the octopus?' by Ryan Walker

Of interest isn't the political message of the cartoon -- a condemnation of the Republican-controlled US congress' refusal to prohibit government contracts with trusts -- but rather the metaphor being used: an octopus in a saw-mill. Although this trope is all but forgotten in the modern political cartoonists' lexicon, the ecological horror of its origin haunts the forests of Cascadia to this day.

As mentioned previously, the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus will instinctively hide deep inside the branches of its tree if the tree is violently disturbed -- as when being felled by loggers. This often resulted in octopuses going undetected until the trees got to a saw-mill, where the octopuses usually met an unfortunate demise in the mill works. Besides killing the innocent cephalopods, these accidents cost timber companies thousands of dollars every year during the 19th and early 20th centuries due to valuable timber and pulp becoming stained with octopus ink and mills being forced to shut down for the better part of a day for deoctopussing.

Needless to say, this did not please the timber companies, nor the workers who had to clean the mangled, inky octopuses out of the works. To the timber industry, tree octopuses were nothing but costly nuisances -- a view that led to anti-octopus eradication campaigns being promoted in logging camps. Sadly, these profit-motivated cephalopodicidal outbursts were one of the major contributing factors to the tree octopus' current endangered status.

But during the time when tree octopuses were still abundant in the forests of the Northwest, "an octopus in a saw-mill" became a common idiom for an annoyingly messy accident waiting to happen. This makes the joke of the cartoon clearer: Not only will the buzz-saw hurt the trusts octopus, it'll also gum up the blade of legislation and splatter ink on Uncle Sam's patriotic finery, tarnishing his image. Presumably the Socialist editors of The Comrade found this prospect darkly amusing.

UPDATE 2009-10-02: Google Books has a collection of full issues of The Comrade, including the one with the above cartoon. Also, if you are interested in political cartoons or propaganda featuring octopuses, do visit Vulgar Army, a blog devoted almost exclusively to just that.

Lyle Zapato

... And An Octopus In A Christmas Tree

Lyle Zapato | 2008-12-26.2760 LMT | Nature | Cascadia | Sasquatch Issues

James from Seattle/Olympia writes in with a discovery he made in his Christmas tree:

2008-12-25: "Pacific NW Xmas tree Octopus"

Just letting you know, we spotted this adventurous tree octopi feeling particularly festive.

Xmas Tree Octopus

Sometimes tree octopuses hitch a ride in Christmas trees harvested from farms on the Olympic Peninsula. When its tree is being jostled violently, a tree octopus will hunker down deep inside the branches near the trunk and camouflage itself to look like bark. This is a defensive mechanism to protect it from wind storms and sasquatch trying to shake octopuses to the ground. They may stay hidden like this for days after a particularly violent shaking, such as experienced by Christmas trees when they are chopped down and transported.

Many octopuses have a natural instinct to decorate their lairs with attractive baubles, and O. paxarbolis is no exception. When it finally comes out of hiding and explores its tree, finding it covered in shiny ornaments and sparkly lights, it will become so mesmerized by the baublely abundance that it'll hardly notice that its tree is sitting in some human's living room.

Scandinavian immigrants considered it good luck to find a tree octopus in their Christmas tree. Granted, that's because they like to eat them. But for us more enlightened cephalopodophiles, we can consider it a sign of good luck that the species hasn't yet gone extinct.

And to keep it that way, please remember to remove any octopuses you find before disposing of your Christmas tree. They can be put in a shoe box -- with a bit of moist branch to make them feel comfortable and some tinsel to keep them distracted -- and taken to your nearest chapter of the Friends of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus for reintroduction into the wild.