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In 'Soul Of An Octopus,' An Invertebrate Steals Our Hearts

Giant octopus. i
Dieter Hawlan/iStockphoto
Giant octopus.
Dieter Hawlan/iStockphoto

Once a month, The New York Times Book Review includes animals as a category in its best-selling books list. This past Sunday, an invertebrate cracked the top group.

Coming in 10th — after books about birds, dogs, wolves, sheep and elephants — was Sy Montgomery's The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration in the Wonder of Consciousness.

I'll be cheering for Montgomery's book to climb even higher in the ranks. As I wrote here at 13.7 last month, after a morning at my local aquarium, I have fallen hard for all things octopus. Montgomery offers a unique window into octopus behavior and intelligence through elegant descriptions — both science-based and emotional — of her extended encounters with octopuses while going behind the scenes at Boston's New England Aquarium and diving in Polynesian waters.

The aptly-named giant Pacific octopus Octavia comes alive in the book (as do other octopuses) with a unique personality that responds to Montgomery in poignant ways, as I described in my review for the Times Literary Supplement last week:

"Wild-caught in British Columbia and transported to the aquarium by Federal Express, Octavia is the octopus Montgomery comes to know best. On one occasion, Octavia and Montgomery hold on to each other for one hour and fifteen minutes, in an instance of tactile pleasure felt in an apparently mutual way by octopus and woman. 'I stroked her head,' Montgomery reports, 'her arms, her webbing, absorbed in her presence. She seemed equally attentive to me.'

Montgomery watches Octavia with added excitement when she lays eggs — thousands of them, like 'tiny seed pearls on black string.' 'Mottled with dark patches, Octavia is radiantly beautiful', writes Montgomery, 'the very picture of a healthy octopus and a diligent mother. She fluffs the clusters of eggs nearest the window with one arm, like a mom sitting on a park bench might jiggle a baby buggy.' The eggs, though, will never hatch; they are inert, infertile, sending no signs of life back to their caretaker. Never having had the opportunity to mate with a male, Octavia will not experience the evanescence of octopus motherhood shortly before death in the way that wild female octopuses do."

The Soul of an Octopus

A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness

by Sy Montgomery

Hardcover, 261 pages |

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Octopuses' rapid color changes delight Montgomery. No wonder, because the animals control these at will through their chromatophores, cells filled with pigments that may cause vivid reds, starburst patterns or stripes. (If you have seen the movie Jurassic World — 13.7's Marcelo Gleiser wrote about the film here Wednesday — you will know that chromatophores from a cuttlefish, a relative of the octopus, play a central role in a behavior by the fictional, lab-engineered dinosaur Indominus rex that I won't reveal here.) This behavior is learned, as is the amazingly fun-to-watch, coconut-carrying, tool-using behavior of wild veined octopuses.

Whereas most octopuses are solitary, except for mating and the females' egg-tending, individuals of the Pacific striped octopus species may live in groups of up to 40.

It's clear that octopus intelligence isn't focused only on things like finding food and escaping predators, but we still have a fantastic amount more to learn in the wild about these unusually complex invertebrates.

I ended my TLS review with three questions that, since meeting an octopus and then reading The Soul of an Octopus, I can't shake out of my brain:

"Should we continue to embrace a system whereby aquarists can order a young octopus by email, like a pair of shoes, when an old one wears out? Is it time to retire the argument that octopuses confined to aquarium tanks rightly act as 'ambassadors' for their species, so that we humans may learn more about them? Might we best honor octopuses by giving them their freedom?"


Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape.

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