ZPi Logo "Serving the Paranoid
since 1997"
Lyle Zapato

Nicharongorong: Tree Octopuses of Micronesia

Lyle Zapato | 2010-11-18.5710 LMT | Cephalopods | Nature

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.

In an earlier post I mentioned R.E. Johannes' Words of the Lagoon (1981). In a chapter titled "The Arboreal Octopus", Johannes relays reports of octopuses that climb out of the water and into the mangrove trees of Palau to rear their young:

Many Palauans say they have seen octopi climbing trees in the mangroves. Many of the old men I talked to throughout the islands said that they had witnessed this event several times during their lives. Most of them said that the octopus climbed the urur tree, Sonneratia alba, up to a point several feet above water level, where a ring of ferns typically grows out of the trunk. Here, to make the story even more bizarre, the octopus is said to give birth to several dozen babies, which soon crawl down the tree and into the water, being preyed upon by birds and crabs as they do so.

Johannes is skeptical of the live-birth part since all known octopuses lay eggs and tree-birthing seems a disadvantageous way to get one's young off to a good start in life. As to the tree-climbing part, he finds other accounts of land-going Pacific octopuses plausible, and notes that his informants were quick to differentiate between observations, such as those of the mangrove octopuses, and mere tales, such as those of octopuses that enter the taro fields of Pohnpei to climb the taro plants. The Pohnpeian Taro Octopus is only a legend, we're assured (I have my doubts).

Also, Johannes personally witnessed an octopus climb the concrete steps of the Micronesian Mariculture Demonstration Center, presumably to demonstrate on behalf of its mariculture, only to be killed (by what or whom Johannes doesn't mention -- had political suppression of octopus demonstrators in Palau reached such disturbing levels that assassinations barely merited note?)

There's further support for this tree-climbing behavior in a paper by Alan E. Davis titled "Suggestions for Study of the Native Knowledge of Marine Animals in the Eastern Caroline Islands", published in Oceanographic History: the Pacific and Beyond (2002, edited by Keith Rodney Benson and Philip F. Rehbock). Davis spent seven years "engaged in a continuing dialog with native Micronesians concerning marine animals" with the goal of identifying "empirically sound knowledge of potential scientific interest." He relays reports of similar octopus behavior from Chuuk State, with the additional details of the names for these arboreal octopuses and why the locals don't eat them:

Johannes relayed reports by Palauans that a certain octopus exits the water, and even climbs trees. Such an octopus is known in Chuuk, and is known in Faichuk District as áfátámaas or nichórongorong. It is said to have from four to six arms*, to be quite large, and very long. I have two or three reports of recent captures of this octopus, which, however, many persons say they do not eat, because, "they eat lizards."

(* An endnote suggests the missing arms may be the result of partial predation, unsuccessful fishing, or a mutation. I'd hypothesize it's from fighting with their lizard prey. I'd also hypothesize that the lizard-eating itself may be an atavistic behavior among tree octopuses.)

Since writing that paper, Davis has compiled "A Preliminary List of Animal Names in the Chuuk District, Micronesia" (note: link goes to a large PDF), which lists a number of Chuukese names for octopuses that come onto land, including arboreal species (speech community where name is used in brackets):

  • áfátemas: Octopus that crawls up onto land; often said to have fewer than eight legs. Also the name of the bird Eudynamis taitensis. ALT: afetamas. [Munien; Wonip; Fósón.]
  • kúseiroch: This is the one that comes up at night onto land and hunts for lizards. He stated there are only two octopus recognized on Nomwin; the night octopus, this species, is not eaten because it eats lizards. [Nomwin.]
  • nicharong: The octopus that is emerges onto land. [Eét.]
  • nicharongorong₁: An octopus, said to have six tentacles (or frequently various other numbers), to climb on coconut trees. These octopuses have variously been described as having short tentacles or long tentacles. One man reported to have seen one, perhaps in the early 1970's. Chukienú speakers do not know the name áfátámas. [Chukienú.]
  • nicharongorong₂: An octopus, said to climb out on mangroves. They can have four or five tentacles. [Polle.]
  • nicharongorong₃: An octopus that crawls out on land. SYN: áfátámas. Displays black spots when we poke it. They move, radiate from the point we touch it on. Has a long head, about 3" by 6". One student had seen one outside the barrier reef at núkún áchách: its head was about 1" x 4". LIT: ninja? [Polle.]
  • rokóf₁: The head is longer, the arms are straight, the webs are not extensive. This octopus climbs on land. SYN: another person from Ulul gives the name rongóf. [Ulul.]
  • rokóf₃: This octopus was said to readily turn red. This is different than kúhan leeror̄. Crawl up on land and eat lizards. Tend to be skinny and long. One fisherman in his 40's had seen them, he thought, two times. At the largest, about 1.5-1.75" in diameter. [Puluwat.]
  • rongóf: Night time octopus with long head and long tentacles. Can come up on land. Seen on the beach at night. [Ulul.]

Something very like a nicharongorong appears in Stories from the Marshall Islands: Bwebwenato Jān Aelān̄ Kein (2002, edited by Jack A. Tobin) in "Story of Lōm̧kein", as told by Jelibōr Jam, Kuwajleen 1975. (Unfortunately the Google Books copy is missing the first and last page of the story; I had to finagle the text out by piecing together search results.)

A chiefess named Lōm̧kein becomes a mejenkwaad (a demon that possesses pregnant women and has a mouth on the back of her head with which she eats anyone within reach of her long, stretchy neck) after her child dies during birth due to magic being used against her. She partially eats her child and threatens to eat others before dying. Her spirit leaves her body and threatens to kill everyone in the Marshalls. After she is buried at sea, she appears on the beach before the men who buried her, Ļakatau and two others. She then turns into a floating stone, which Ļakatau takes and places in a tree as the three return home. Then this happens:

When the three of them had just reached the house, they looked at the branch of the breadfruit tree, [and saw] an octopus crawling up it.

And the men were surprised. And one of them ran and brought people there so that they would come and see the octopus. For this was the first time that they had seen such a thing.

And the man said to the people, "Come and see the octopus on the branch of the breadfruit tree." And the people said, "There is not one thing of the sea that can climb up a branch of a breadfruit tree, or pandanus, or coconut tree. You are lying."

And the man said, "For this is the first time you will see this kind of thing. Come here!"

And the old people remained there. But the young women and young men ran with the man, and when they got there, the octopus was still on the branch of the breadfruit tree.

And some of the girls again returned and told the people that they should go to see it. And when they got there, the octopus was still there, from morning until noon.

Some of the young men went to bring the octopus and eat it.

When they reached the octopus, they saw that it only had six tentacles and a small head; very long tentacles (perhaps one and a half fathoms long), but a small head.

Because this was the first time they had seen anything like this, they were afraid to eat it. So that they did not eat it. And it remained there until it would leave on its own.

When it was sunset, it was still there. And they watched to see when it would leave.

When the sun rose, in the morning, it was still there. They watched it closely to see where it would go. When it was eight o'clock or so, they did not know where it went.

And they did not know it was Lōm̧kein. And Lōm̧kein did not cease talking to Ļakatau, but she did not speak to the people.

Later that evening, the octopus walked about and frightened people, and spoke to them when they were asleep. (It made the people dream.) "When you see the octopus, you will know that it is I, Lōm̧kein. And cats and any kind of animal: pigs, dogs, and other such creatures.

"And I will harm the people with poison coral."

She likes to rub the poison coral on people. Obviously after hearing this everyone lives in fear of going outside at night or alone during the day. Eventually Ļakatau and a chief are able to bring her under control by distributing medicine throughout the islands.

Though Lōm̧kein could appear as any creature, that her first choice to strike fear in the Marshallese was as a tree octopus suggests that they are viewed as bad omens there. However, this is the only tree octopus reference I can find from the Marshalls, and the other stories about mejenkwaad in the book don't include that plot-point, so perhaps the view of them as manifestations of baby-eating she-demons is limited to Mr. Jelibōr Jam.

End of post.