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Lyle Zapato

How To Defend Against A Charging Octopus

Lyle Zapato | 2009-10-03.5440 LMT | Defensive Techniques | Retro

An octopus running

The vulnerable portion of the octopus is the neck, and fishermen and others, who know their habits when attacked, always strive if possible to seize them by the throttle-valve, when they are easily killed. This is comparatively easy on land, but nearly impossible in the water. The locomotion of the devil-fish is as easy on land as in the water. They have been known frequently to run up perpendicular cliffs, two hundred feet high, as easily as the fly runs up a wall, the machinery of attachment being very similar. They are said to move on land as fast as a man can run, and frequently pursue their prey out of the sea, though on the land they are far more timid than in their marine haunts. [From World of Wonders (1881).]

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Lyle Zapato

Tree Octopuses Among The Stars

Lyle Zapato | 2009-09-28.8040 LMT | Paraterrestrials

Tree-climbing octopus
Fig. 4 An artist's impression of a tree-climbing octopus.

The above illustration is from Life Among the Stars (1974) by V. A. Firsoff. It shows a tree octopus as representative of a hypothetical cephalopodesque lifeform that has the potential to evolve into a spacefaring species.

Firsoff imagines which types of lifeforms are most likely to follow an evolutionary pathway to sapience and eventually into space. Considering various Earth species as hypothetical candidates for proto-spacefarers, he notes that sealife is less constrained than landlife, which must deal with the vagaries of humidity and temperature on dry land, but:

these difficulties have honed the keen edge of perception and the thinking capacity of the land-livers to a general level above that of their marine counterparts, although some of the most intelligent animals are aquatic mammals, who have returned to the mother of all life after a prolonged evolutionary exile on the terra firma. The octopus, too, is a clever fellow.

He proposes that a lineage that begins with a clever octopus, already at an advantage over its marine brethren, venturing out of the sea and being honed by a challenging life in the trees is a very promising one:

[S]omething like an octopus, perhaps tree-climbing, is conceivable on land, especially in humid conditions; and, since this is a highly intelligent animal and equipped with limbs admirably suited for handling things, it could evolve to an industrial civilisation, which would be difficult for the dolphin, despite its large brain and developed language, because flippers are not much use for anything except swimming. Thus a race of pseudo-octopi may yet be piloting space ships!

This theme of certain species having more potential for sapience and spaceship-piloting was famously expanded upon by science fiction writer David Brin in his novels set in the Uplift Universe, where sapient patron species use genetic modification to nudge along other species deemed particularly ripe for sapience. Not surprisingly, Brin's Contacting Aliens describes one of these patrons, the Puber (the grand-patrons of the series' main antagonists, the Soro), as having been uplifted from a species that was "arboreal, a sort of tree-dwelling octopus". How could Brin not include something with such obvious potential?

So what of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, our dear, endangered friend? Does it have the potential to follow the path that Firsoff charts to the stars? And if it does, how can we deny it its potential by refusing to do everything we can to save it from extinction? With the shame of our past crimes against it and the present indifference among many of us to its plight, perhaps we owe the tree octopus to not just save it, but to uplift it, so that one day Paxarbolis ab-Human can take its place in the Community of the Universe where it belongs.

Lyle Zapato

Harlan Ellison Stalks The Tree Octopus

Lyle Zapato | 2009-09-25.5670 LMT | Entertainment

Stalking the Nightmare (1982) is a collection of miscellaneous short works by Harlan Ellison. One of the pieces, "The Hour That Stretches", is sort of a fictionalized transcript of a guest appearance by Ellison on the radio show Hour 25, hosted by Mike Hodel.

At Ellison's suggestion, callers to the show (including some of his writer peers) pitch ideas to him, which he then tries to develop into plot synopses for stories, improv style -- at least when he isn't insulting the callers or saving Humanity from mysterious, outer forces bent on our destruction.

After an idea about racing domesticated Arabian camels with NFL players as jockeys and someone suggesting he write "I'm Looking for Kadak" again, only with the Pope thrown in -- both of which he dispatched without synopsizing -- Ellison gets this call:

Hodel put on another caller. Mayer Alan Brenner.

"I know you," Ellison said.

"You sure do. And I've got a beauty for you."

"Be still my heart," Ellison said, sinking down on his spine.

"It's an excerpt from NORTHEAST TREE AND STREAM," Mayer said. "A short history of the famous Chesapeake Tree-Climbing Octopus..."

"Why me?" Ellison groaned. "Which God did I offend?"

"All of them," said Hodel.

Mayer went on, undaunted by sounds of pain coming over his radio.

"This retiring and rarely glimpsed creature lives in the many quiet estuaries of the Chesapeake system. Early each morning the octopus leaves the water and crawls up the trunk of a shoreside tree. It makes its way precariously onto a branch overhanging the water, where it waits for its prey to pass underneath." Silence ensued. Dead air hung heavily in the night.

Finally, Ellison said, "And that's it, right? That's the idea, right, Mayer?"

"Uh-huh."

More silence. Then, in a very soft, very tired voice, Ellison said, "These blue-skinned Jewish aliens with wheels come down to Earth and kidnap the Pope so they can have a race on Arabian camels to establish whether Jews or Gentiles are worthiest to live in the universe, and the Pope gets all these NFL players to ride as his team, because they're all Polish or black and not a Jew in the lot, and they have this watercourse raceway and they race for the universe, and as they come under this tree in the Chesapeake system the octopus drops out of a tree and eats every last, fucking one of them, football players, Jewish aliens, the Pope, the camels, Brian Sipe and Terry Bradshaw and Walter Payton and you too Mayer!"

Ok, so it's not "Devilfish with a Glass Tentacle" or "A Boy and his Octopus", but it's still a Harlan Ellison story about a tree octopus. Now if I could just track down that issue of Northeast Tree and Stream that Brenner found...

Lyle Zapato

Pratchett's Nation

Lyle Zapato | 2009-09-20.1325 LMT | Entertainment | Piratical Yarrings

This is strange.

First of all, Terry Pratchett published a novel last year, Nation, that features tree-climbing octopuses and no one thinks to notify me, of all people? I'm hurt! If I wasn't already paranoid, this would put me over the edge.

Well, anyway, I'm in the loop now. I only discovered it last night while looking for more things to put on the media subpage on the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site. (An aside: What was the deal with 2008? Five books -- that I've discovered so far -- were published with tree octopuses in them, not even counting school text books. And only one of the authors thought to let me know. Thank you, again, Eric E. Olson.)

But here's the weird thing: The cover of the UK edition has a tree-climbing octopus on it, hidden in the shadows. Excellent! But then I looked a little closer at it. It seemed strangely familiar. Here's a lightened and contrasted detail (taken from an extra-large image of the cover found here):

Detail of tree-climbing octopus from UK cover of 'Nation' UK cover of 'Nation'
The added white square on the cover is where the tree octopus can be found.

Now where have I seen that tree octopus before? Oh, yeah, here it is:

Original tree octopus image
Tree octopus image that's been on my site for a decade.

I applaud the cover designer's desire for technical accuracy by using an image of an actual tree octopus (albeit not O. arbori, as specified by Pratchett), but is it really the smartest thing, from a legal ass-covering perspective, to take an image off of some website and put it on a very notable commercial product? I mean, you're designing the cover for a freaking Terry Pratchett novel, not doing graphics on some penny-ante website in your spare time; someone's going to eventually notice, no matter how much you darken the image.

I can understand if the cover artist left the octopus out, and your boss told you just before the deadline that there had to be a tree-climbing octopus on there, and Google image search is just a few tempting clicks away... but, really? No one around the office can draw an octopus, not even one that would be mostly in silhouette? What are they teaching you people in design school? Drawing octopuses should be part of the fundamentals!

Just so we're clear, I have absolutely no intention of making any sort of drama about this (not that I rightly could... ahem), and everything's cool as far as I'm concerned. Mostly I'm disappointed that more effort wasn't put into having a proper tree-climbing octopus illustration on the cover (and none at all on the North American version, at least that I can see). But whoever's in charge of the cover-design department at Pratchett Heavy Industries needs to give some stern lectures to their underlings lest they get themselves into trouble in the future.

Lyle Zapato

Book Review: Drome

Lyle Zapato | 2009-09-19.0440 LMT | Cascadia | Hollow Earth | Lost Worlds | Entertainment | Retro
Cover: 'Drome' by John Martin Leahy
But why had they set out on a journey so strange and so hazardous -- through the land of the tree-octopi and the snake-cats, through that horrible, unearthly fungoid forest, and up and up, up into the caves of utter blackness, across that frightful chasm, up to the Tamahnowis Rocks, into the blaze of the sunshine, out onto the snow and ice on Mount Rainier?

Drome, written and illustrated by John Martin Leahy, is a pulp story about a strange underground world, home to a lost civilization that may be the progenitors of ancient Greek culture. It was originally serialized in the Jan.-May, 1927 issues of Weird Tales, and republished as a book in 1952. I'm reviewing the book, which I believe has some differences from the pulp original (a preface, footnotes, and some casual references in the main text to atom-bombs and television that don't seem particularly 1920s-ish.)

The story has two elements of interest to me: 1) it starts in Cascadia (the entrance to the underworld is on Mt. Rainier) with references to regional history and culture and 2) it mentions Cascadian tree octopuses, albeit of an unusual and deadly subterranean variety. So naturally I had to acquire an original copy for the ZPi library and review it.

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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.

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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.

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