Saturday, December 12, 2020

Octopus Interlude

"Does this octopus look angry to you?"

This question is quite a typical example of the things my Tasmanian correspondent and I talk about when we've finished discussing blog business but convention and common politeness demand that we each pretend to take an interest in the other's life for a few minutes before signing off the call.  In this instance my correspondent presented me with a photo of a random cephalopod and asked me to pronounce on its emotional state.

The back story to this sudden excursion into octopus analysis is quite simple.  In an increasingly desperate attempt to maintain discipline among her rapidly growing offspring my correspondent has taken to scattering terrifying pictures about her home in the hopes of scaring her recalcitrant children into obedience.  At least this is the excuse she presented for having mural of a great white shark on the ceiling of her youngest daughter's bedroom.  Before the octopus picture she has acquired goes up on a wall she wanted reassurance that the subject looked adequately terrifying.

The invertebrate under discussion

While disavowing any deep understand of the octopus psyche I had to confess that the octopus didn't look particularly angry to me.  But it does most certainly have a decided look about it.  Once glance is enough to assure you that this particular octopus is taking no crap.  This seemed to satisfy my correspondent and the picture is now adorning a wall within eyesight of her beloved children.

I have to admit that I have always thought that octopuses (octopi? octopodes? octomum?) do look somewhat creepy and menacing.  I'm rather fond of octopus (in a non garlic butter sort of way) but a lot of that is due to the low probability of bumping into one in the street.  I suspect it has to do with the fact that they bear absolutely no resemblance to humans and yet manage to give the impression (accurately) that they're quite intelligent.  Once can sense purpose in an octopus which tends to give us the shivers in something that looks so much like an alien.

Actually that previous sentence needs to be reversed.  Octopuses do not look alien.  Aliens look like octopuses.  When, in our demented fever dreams we have come up with pictures of what aliens look like we seem to derive their appearance from the octopus.  I'm not even going to get into daleks which are basically octopuses driving tanks.  HP Lovecraft didn't help matters either.  It would seem that when we seek out stomach churning menace we immediately dial in an octopus.

Possibly its because despite being so thoroughly different octopuses actually have quite a few things we should recognise.  They have arms, they have eyes, they quite obviously have brains yet they've managed to squeeze these things into a package so utterly different from our own that the sight of them sends us climbing the curtains with squeals of terror (I do that anyway but for completely different, puffin related, reasons).

I rather suspect when we do make first contact the alien species we encounter better not look anything like an octopus otherwise I foresee nothing except grim and bloody warfare until one of our two species is extinct.

But back to the octopus de jour.  It is in fact a drawing of a maori octopus which hang about in the waters around Tasmania and New Zealand.  They aren't the biggest of octopuses but they are aggressive and fearless.  They also have the usual depressing reproductive cycle that nature seems to delight in.  The male ambushes the female (we would call that rape but apparently octopuses are unenlightened beings for all their intelligence) and impregnates her.  The effort of this apparently destroys his brain as he then goes senile and dies.  The female produces countless thousands of eggs which she tends fanatically, constantly fanning her tentacles across them to ensure a constant flow of clean water.  To help assure that the water is clean she stops eating so as not to produce any waste products.  The result is that after the baby octopuses hatch the mother usually starves to death.  I'd love to see a remake of The Lion King with that as the cycle of life.

Deprived of parents and surrounded by predators the few of those maori octopus that survive quite naturally grow up surly and overly aggressive, with a tendency to start fights, get into trouble and not ask for consent before initiating sex.  In short, its an entire species of juvenile delinquents.  Thank god they can't drive cars.

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