ZPi Logo "Serving the Paranoid
since 1997"
Lyle Zapato

Devon Hedge Octopus

Lyle Zapato | 2019-02-24.8500 LMT | Cephalopods | Nature

Earlier this month, the BBC reported on an unusual car accident in Devon, UK:

Crash driver 'swerved to avoid octopus'

A driver who swerved "to avoid an octopus" before crashing has been arrested on suspicion of drug-driving.

Police were called to the A381 between Malborough and South Milton in Devon, where they found a vehicle upside-down in a ditch on Tuesday evening.

The 49-year-old driver was checked over by paramedics before being arrested.

Officers, who tweeted about the incident, said they found no evidence of an octopus on the road.

Octopuses are not unheard of in the seas off the south coast of England, but this particular cephalopod would have had to crawl more than 3 miles (5km) over hills and fields to find itself in the path of a car on the A381.

Although authorities blamed the driver's octopus claim on drugs, I believe this was in fact an actual sighting of the long-thought-extinct Devon hedge octopus (Octopus saepeitineris dumnonii).

Hedgerows and some scant trees abutting the A381, typical of the area where the accident occurred.

While Devon currently looks like a mostly treeless patchwork of fields bordered with hedgerows, tens of thousands of years ago it was covered in primeval forests. During that time, octopuses ventured out of the sea to colonize Devon's ancient woodlands, adapting into an arboreal or semiarboreal species, as they have done in many other places around the world.

However, once humans started to colonize Great Britain, Devon tree octopuses saw their habitat dwindle as the invasive humans cut down all their trees. At the same time, these territorial primates built hedges -- woody shrubs grown in lines on earthen banks -- to section off the newly denuded land. It was into these hedges that Devon tree octopuses were forced to escape, ultimately adapting to use them as a network of woody roads to travel throughout the region between whatever trees remained.

This was not an equitable trade. Life in the relatively cramped hedges was more difficult than in the sprawling forests of their ancestors. Gone was the easy access to abundant acorns -- rich in protein, fats, carbohydrates, and tannins that helped toughen the octopuses' skin to survive out of water; the concentration of wildlife fleeing from the vanishing forests into the hedgerows -- over 2,000 different species eventually took up residence in these narrow habitats -- meant intense competition with apex hedge-predators, like dormice and hedgehogs, over limited resources of bugs and berries. Meanwhile, the low branches of the hedge shrubs offered little escape from the octopuses' main predator, the British panther.

The population of octopuses in Devon was never as great after the trees fell. Once a dominate forest species, the hedge octopuses became increasingly marginalized until reported sightings by humans finally ceased. That was centuries ago. Most people in Devon today aren't even aware there ever were hedge octopuses, much less that their forebearers once tentaculated majestically in great numbers through the mighty oak forests of Devonshire, full of acorn meat and hope for their future, oblivious to the Scouring on the horizon. So it's understandable that the local police force would assume someone seeing an octopus on the A381 was high on drugs.

But is it possible that some hedge octopuses might still live in that sparse web of dense shrubbery, an inscrutable world still underexplored by mainstream cephalopodology? Instead of going extinct, perhaps they outsmarted their predators, becoming even more adept at camouflage to the point that we wouldn't even notice if the hedges teemed with them in the millions. If panthers can still stalk the open fields of Exmoor, then surely intelligent beings with color-changing skin can evade the scrutiny of outside human authority in their Kowloonesque home. The hedgerows hold their secrets tight, and none holds tighter than the octopus.

So why would one wander off onto the A381 where it could get run over by drugged drivers? Perhaps they are becoming emboldened by the increase in British forests. Since England's estimated forest coverage reached a nadir of 5.2% in 1905, the UK Forestry Commission has been instituting afforestation programs to plant trees. This has resulted in forest cover rebounding to 13% (source) -- a similar amount to when hedge octopuses were still being reported in Devon a thousand years ago.

Instead of just being an amusing story from a local crime blotter, this might be a portent of the return of tree octopuses to the British Isles. Hopefully it won't be a short-lived return, once Brexit forces the human population to burn the new trees for fuel and regress to the Mesolithic lifestyle that started the problem. Maybe someone should advertise the Devon hedge octopuses' plight on a bus.

Note: much like the Canada goose and the Pacific Northwest tree octopus, the popular name for O. saepeitineris dumnonii is the nounal Devon hedge octopus, not the adjectival Devonian. The term "Devonian" in biology is commonly used to refer to the geologic period between 60 and 419.2 Mya, so it shouldn't be used for regional animals to avoid confusion with Paleozoic species. As far as we are aware, there were no octopoids during this time, as all Devonian cephalopods still retained their external shells, and hedges were unlikely to be found.

UPDATE 2019-02-25: For those still having trouble imagining a Devon populated with tree octopuses, consider Wistman's Wood, one of only a few small, remnant pockets of the ancient forests that once covered the landscape:

Very old oaks (Quercus pedonculata) approx. 400-500 years. (Photo: Babou Bib)

Those moss-shrouded oaks, stunted as they are, could easily be still haunted by Devon octopuses clinging resolutely to the old ways, refusing to succumb to the relative modernity of the hedges. Also check out Neil Burnell's stunning photos of the woods, which have been described as Dagobahesque.

UPDATE 2019-03-09: A Spanish digital artist named Gema, aka Ashenwave (@AshenTM), created an illustration that suggests what it was like for Devon tree octopuses before all the English oaks were felled -- a carefree life concerned only with fashionable acorn hats, tragically unaware of the deprivations their offspring would face in the rough world of the hedges:

(Prints, etc. available at Redbubble and Design By Humans.)

End of post.