/a. r. castellano
Beware the Octopus
The eight tentacles of the octopus contain two-thirds of its five hundred million neurons, enabling each limb to focus on separate tasks with a degree of independence. In 2008, experts concluded that of these eight tentacles, only the rearmost two function primarily as legs. This leaves six left, to act as arms.
The octopus displays an alarming aptitude for adapting and learning from past experiences. In 2014, a veined octopus—nicknamed “Kleptopus” by admirers—was observed hoarding seashells off the sea floor to build a fortress to defend against predators. Eleven years earlier, in 2003, Seattle Aquarium biologists challenged their resident giant Pacific octopus—Billye—with a childproof bottle. During the first trial, Billye solved the push-and-twist riddle in less than an hour. When presented the bottle for the second trial, Billye removed the cap in under five minutes.
One Polynesian creation myth, which supposes our universe to be the latest in a cycle, identifies the octopus as the sole survivor of the previous universe. In 2018, a study released by an international team of scientists proposed that the octopus evolved elsewhere in the cosmos, before arriving on Earth in frozen eggs two hundred and seventy million years ago.
On November 2nd, 2016, Rock Hill law enforcement arrested 69-year old resident John D. Barron after he called 911 to inquire whether the Russian and English alphabets were the same—his second drunk dial of the evening. During his first call, a frantic Mr. Barron asked: “How many legs does an octopus have?”
The mimic octopus is unrivaled in the art of disguise. Its expertise far surpasses the color-changing abilities of other octopuses—the mimic is no less than a deep-cover method actor, altering its size, shape, and behaviors to outwit predator and prey alike. A mimic octopus can flatten itself, gliding across the ocean floor and trailing all eight tentacles behind, pushed together in imitation of a banded sole. Or: it can retreat into a burrow, leaving only two tentacles exposed. Their coloration shifts—changes—until the two writhing appendages bear an uncanny resemblance to the highly venomous black-and-white banded sea snake. Depending on the situation, the mimic octopus can assume the appearance and behaviors of up to fifteen distinct species. That we know of.
Because it lacks an interior skeleton, the body of the octopus is almost entirely soft. The chitinous beak is the only firm portion of an octopus’s body, which allows them to squeeze through even the narrowest of gaps. In 2006, the National Aquarium of New Zealand made international headlines following the escape of resident common octopus, Inky. Aquarium officials believe Inky stuffed himself through the top of his tank, flopped to the floor, and proceeded to creep eight feet across the room to slide down a drainpipe towards salty sanctuary in Hawke’s Bay. No one has seen Inky the Octopus since.
All species of octopus are venomous to some extent, but the blue-ringed octopus alone poses a threat to humans. Only five to eight inches large, the blue-ringed octopus produces enough venom to kill two dozen adults in minutes. The bites are small and relatively painless. Victims often don’t even notice the bite until after paralysis and respiratory failure begin to set in. There is no known antivenom.
On July 6th, 2014, underwater videographer Joe Kistel filmed a dive off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. His footage, later released to the public, begins with a rippling mass emerging from its lair. Pale tentacles, the same off-white as the sandy seabed below, propel the octopus outward and reveal its purple and brown head—mistaken for part of the coral architecture just moments earlier. Taking notice of the intruder, the octopus slinks forward, tentacles weaving smoothly across the ocean floor towards Kistel. Following a moment’s contemplation, the octopus retreats again, towards his lair. The footage jumps—
The octopus glides forward again, rapidly this time. Confident in its approach, it comes to rest at Kistel’s feet. Cautiously, it probes the camera with one tentacle…then another…and another…the screen fills with suckers. Slowly, surely, one tentacle withdraws—clutching something thin and black. Passing it from one tentacle to the next, methodically tugging farther away, the octopus begins to remove a gasket. Before it can compromise the waterproofing any further, Kistel yanks his camera away. Just before the footage ends, his lens soars upwards:
the lonely expanse of ocean overhead, a school of fish pass by—silent, indifferent.
beyond them: the shimmering light of the sun, above the surface—
—so very far away
A.R. Castellano is a neurodivergent writer of primarily fabulist fiction. He received his MFA from American University and is a former Editor-in-Chief of FOLIO. He can occasionally be found on Twitter @thewickedword.