In his essay, "The Extinction of Man", from the collection Certain Personal Matters (1897), H. G. Wells contemplates the necessary transience of Humanity in the Earth's spotlight and who will replace us when our 15-millenia are up, noting that we would be doomed should the cephalopods make a concerted effort:
Then, again, the order of the Cephalopods, to which belong the cuttle-fish and the octopus (sacred to Victor Hugo), may be, for all we can say to the contrary, an order with a future. Their kindred, the Gastropods, have, in the case of the snail and slug, learnt the trick of air-breathing. And not improbably there are even now genera of this order that have escaped the naturalist, or even well-known genera whose possibilities in growth and dietary are still unknown. Suppose some day a specimen of a new species is caught off the coast of Kent. It excites remark at a Royal Society soirée, engenders a Science Note or so, " A Huge Octopus!" and in the next year or so three or four other specimens come to hand, and the thing becomes familiar. "Probably a new and larger variety of Octopus so-and-so, hitherto supposed to be tropical," says Professor Gargoyle, and thinks he has disposed of it. Then conceive some mysterious boating accidents and deaths while bathing. A large animal of this kind coming into a region of frequent wrecks might so easily acquire a preferential taste for human nutriment, just as the Colorado beetle acquired a new taste for the common potato and gave up its old food-plants some years ago. Then perhaps a school or pack or flock of Octopus gigas would be found busy picking the sailors off a stranded ship, and then in the course of a few score years it might begin to stroll up the beaches and batten on excursionists. Soon it would be a common feature of the watering-places -- possibly at last commoner than excursionists. Suppose such a creature were to appear -- and it is, we repeat, a possibility, if perhaps a remote one -- how could it be fought against? Something might be done by torpedoes; but, so far as our past knowledge goes, man has no means of seriously diminishing the numbers of any animal of the most rudimentary intelligence that made its fastness in the sea.
This passage was probably the inspiration for the "Umbrella Beasts" of Lester & Pratt's "The Octopus Cycle", especially since their nature-finds-a-way-via-killer-whales solution to Humanity's octopus problem seemed a bit cribbed from the ending of Wells' War of the Worlds.
As V. A. Firsoff speculated, land octopuses, especially those that adapt to the challenging environment of the trees -- as opposed to merely hanging around beaches, snacking on sunbathers as Wells imagines -- may indeed have a bright future, perhaps even taking their place among the spacefaring species of the Cosmos. If Wells is right about the danger of them supplanting us, it would be wise to stay in their good graces. Erecting monuments in their honor couldn't hurt.
My post on the tree octopuses of Polynesia contains a bit of sloppy geography; Palau and the Caroline Islands are actually in Micronesia, not Polynesia (I got the Cook Islands right, though). I'll rectify that slight against the good people and cephalopods of Micronesia with this post focusing on Micronesian tree octopuses.
Non-aquatic cephalopods are notoriously under-represented, if not completely absent, in the fossil record since they are mostly composed of soft-tissue and, unlike their aquatic counterparts, live in environments without a constant rain of fine sediment and ubiquitous muddy ground necessary for soft-tissue fossilization.
Given this explanation for a lack of fossil evidence, it cannot be ruled out that the scenario depicted above -- predation by giant octopuses newly colonizing an above-water world unprepared for their arrival -- is what really doomed the dinosaurs to extinction. Only those dinosaurs that were able to rise above the now-deadly trees -- birds -- survived the transition to a post-tree-octopus environment.
The new decade brings two new tree octopus videos. First up is an incredible one from the Save the Tree Octopus! YouTube channel (not associated with ZPi) which purports to show a hatching tree octopus:
The idea that tree octopuses hatch from solid-shelled eggs in trees is just fanciful, the stuff of urban legend. It has never been documented in any species before, although there have been unconfirmed reports from Palau of octopuses giving live birth in trees. However, the breeding habits of O. paxarbolis -- which must return to the Puget Sound to lay soft-shelled eggs that produce dime-sized hatchlings -- are well known among cephalopodologists, both human and sasquatch.
What I believe we are seeing here is a juvenile tree octopus that has found a bird's nest, pecked a hole through one of the eggs with its beak, and then squeezed through the hole to dine on the innards, causing the imbalanced egg to roll over, hiding the small entrance. This sort of behavior is often seen in octopuses, who enjoy tight spaces and free food. Once finished with its meal and heavy with yolk and albumen, it finds it easier to break the shell than squeeze back through the hole, producing the illusion of hatching.
While not showing the next step in tree octopus evolution that it initially appears, the video is still an interesting look into the food-web of the Cascadian forest canopy, and illustrates the tree octopuses' dependence on native bird species.
The other video is a short, self-explanatory action flick in the "octoploitation" genre from Raging Walrus Filmz titled Tree Octopus Attack! Enjoy:
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.)
Below are a small sample of the numerous videos on YouTube showing cats being trained by their paranoid owners to do battle against the coming Black Helicopter menace.
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.]
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.
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.
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. [...]
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.
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.
Here's an interesting political cartoon by Ryan Walker from the July, 1904 issue of The Comrade:
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.
Copyright © 2004-2013 Lyle Zapato & ZPi
unless otherwise noted or implied.
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