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23 July 2023

Mysteries of the owl and octopus

A new school of natural history seeks to understand the deep intelligence of the Earth’s most enigmatic creatures.

By Kathleen Jamie

Thanks to their human champions, octopuses are at last charming their way into people’s awareness. To name but a few, there is the gloomy octopus, the wonderpus octopus, the deep-sea argonaut octopus and the coconut octopus, which hides in coconut shells it carries around for the purpose. If you are late to this octopus party, fear not – Netflix films such as My Octopus Teacher and various YouTube clips await you. Spoiler: octopuses are deeply, gloriously weird.

David Scheel is a marine biologist based in Alaska. When funding became available to study octopuses – ironically, in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 – he acquired some. Refreshingly, his first visit as a researcher was to the native peoples of Prince William Sound, off the Gulf of Alaska, who regard octopus as a “comfort food” and knew where to find them. Or they used to, but their marine harvesting has been severely affected by the huge oil spill. It was the second of a double blow: the coastline was still recovering from the 1964 earthquake and tsunami, which destroyed whole villages and shifted the sea bed and its habitats. Add dramatic climate changes to that, and things were not as they once were.

In Scheel’s many years of study and discovery for Many Things Under a Rock, indigenous science and stories are given equal weight with Western science. He listens carefully. “Many things under a rock,” is a translation of a native Alaskan name for the octopus – in that part of the landmass they can be found under rocks at low tide. Nonetheless, they are difficult to research, being “flexible, boneless, slippery and elusive”. They are both hunters and hunted. They are emotional, and inquisitive. They sleep and dream.

Occasionally, they’ll eat each other.

The book abounds with wonders. Or horrors, depending on your sensibility. How big is a giant Pacific octopus? There are fishermen’s tales of course, but one uncontested record is of an octopus weighing 11 stone and measuring 23 feet, arm tip to arm tip. Mostly, they’re about 5 stone, much the same as a German shepherd dog. Was it such a creature that held a diver underwater for two hours? (He had an air-line to the surface, but nevertheless.) Or stole a fisherman’s knife from his belt and stabbed him?

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[See also: Consider the noble octopus]

Other octopuses are tiny. The male of the paper nautilus, a pelagic octopod, is minuscule compared with the female. The female creates a papery shell for her young, which she holds in her arms. Occasionally, the adult male has been discovered within the shell too. What is he doing in there? All male octopuses have a hectocotylus, an arm adapted for breeding. It’s the third on the right, and they’ll often keep it tucked underneath them to protect it. In the already diminutive pelagic octopod, this sex arm may break off, but “even detached, this arm is still capable of swimming, clinging and delivering sperm to the female”. After this encounter she’ll lay thousands of eggs which become part of plankton. Very few survive to adulthood.

Photo by Extreme-Photographer/Getty Images

Scheel describes an outing with an Alaskan fisherman. The fisherman, having caught an octopus, cuts off its legs and throws them in a bucket. For the next 20 minutes, the severed legs crawl up the sides of the bucket, using their suckers, seeking an escape to the sea. How does this happen? It’s to do with the whereabouts of neurons. In creatures like us, the neurons are packed into a command-and-control centre: the brain. But in the octopus, neurons are more widely dispersed. They also occur in the arms, meaning they are semi-autonomous and can pursue their own interests without reference to the brain. Having no bones, an octopus arm can twist or uncoil like a whip, reach and catch clams or crabs, and pull them towards its mouth, which contains a beak somewhat like a parrot’s, and which might be yards away.

It is the elegance of an octopus’s movement, the shape-shifting and colouration of the creatures, that Scheel finds so beguiling. He spends a lot of time scuba diving, observing their coloured flows and flushes, which, he says, remind him of the Northern Lights. An octopus can turn kelp-coloured within kelp, and vanish from sight. It can become spiky and coral-shaped among coral. In aquaria, they will jet ink at keepers they dislike – they have emotions. Their body pattern displays are different in different circumstances, such as encountering a predator or exploring a reef. These displays also occur when an octopus is asleep, so it might be possible to tell their dreams.

Of course, for most people, octopuses are beyond the everyday. Owls, on the other hand, have been human familiars for thousands of years. (But they don’t make good pets. Florence Nightingale had a pet owl; un-nursed, it came to a sad end.) If you’re late to the owl party, fear not – you could always travel to the town of Kikinda, in north-east Serbia. There, as Jennifer Ackerman tells us, a multitude of long-eared owls roost right in the town centre, in the trees lining the square, 20 or 30 to a tree. By the Orthodox church “there will be hundreds of pairs of these lovely black-and-orange eyes looking down at you”. It’s the planet’s largest owl parliament, and the townspeople now celebrate them and the tourism they bring. To reach this happy state, much work has been done by the ornithologist Milan Ružić – with the human population as well as the avian. One day, he was approached by a local woman who asked what he was doing. “Counting owls,” he said. “I’ve never seen a live owl,” said the woman. “There are 325 around your head right now.”

[See also: How Nan Shepherd shaped modern nature writing]

That said, owls share with octopuses an ability to hide in plain sight. Cryptic and nocturnal, they can also disguise and camouflage themselves. They’re predators too, of course, and given their silent flight and uncanny nocturnal calls it’s little wonder they have been co-opted into human culture. Ackerman is an excellent writer on the natural world, and in this wise and thoroughly researched book, her chapter on human-owl relations is especially fascinating. Owls have global presence and stand as symbols of everything: good luck, bad luck, wisdom, stupidity. They are messengers, manifestations of owl gods, and often harbingers of death – so much so that they have been routinely driven away or even killed.

But the most important part of this book is concerned with owls in their own domains, from the diminutive elf owl, which is the size of a sparrow, to the mighty Blakiston’s fish owl. The knowledge Ackerman marshals so skilfully comes from devoted ornithologists, and they are rightly honoured too. Owls have superpowers and soap-opera social lives. In the 1970s, Eurasian eagle owls were reintroduced to Germany (they had been eradicated by human pressures). From there, they recolonised the Netherlands. A certain quarry near Maastricht now hosts three pairs, which is known because of the musician Marjon Savelsberg. Obliged to give up playing music because of health issues, Savelsberg was depressed until she became interested in birds and discovered that her acute hearing and musical training enabled her to distinguish one individual owl’s hoot from another. Night after night she rode her mobility scooter to the quarry, concealed herself and listened until she could tell which owl was “married” to which, who had divorced whom, who had shacked up with someone else, who was a newcomer.

The owls themselves, of course, have astonishing hearing. The facial disc, asymmetrical ear-openings and swiftly computing brains mean they produce auditory maps so that they can “see” the world with their ears. They see with their huge eyes too. A great grey owl’s eyes are 3 per cent of its body weight. If ours were the same, they’d be the size of oranges. But an owl’s eyes are fixed facing forward, hence the need to swivel their heads.

[See also: What rocks teach us about the human condition]

The more ornithologists discover, the more they ask. On winter migration, why do snowy owls head north, not south? How have owls achieved silent flight? (A secret that was first explored by an aeronautics engineer.) The creatures reveal things beyond themselves. When a huge cache of sooty owl pellets was discovered in Gippsland, Australia, analysis proved what had long been suspected: that negative environmental change rapidly followed European settlement. The pellets, hundreds of years’ worth, revealed that these owls once had 28 species to prey upon. Now they have ten. Owls don’t only eat other species, they utilise them too: in the US, the eastern screech owl brings home tiny snakes, called blind snakes, that look like worms. Some are eaten by the chicks; others are kept alive in the nest to undertake household chores: the snakes eat harmful flies and larvae. Owls themselves consume millions of rodents, so rather than resort to rodenticides which kill owls in turn, Serbian farmers encourage the birds, hence the huge roost in Kikinda.

Both of these books extend our circle of care. They treat the need for this knowledge as a given. Conservation is inarguable. Of course we must learn about species and save them from extinction, no apologies, and we had better get cracking as there are 230 species of owl and 300 species of octopus. It’s a new kind of natural history, which steps beyond the field’s old “objective” borders. Questions like “What does an octopus dream about?” and “What does an owl know?” might once have seemed quixotic, but here they are treated as legitimate and answerable. (Owls know how to be owls in an increasingly difficult, fragmented and poisoned world.) It all feels liberating, and has never been more urgent.

Kathleen Jamie is Scotland’s makar (national poet). She co-edited “Antlers of Water: Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland” (Canongate)

Many Things Under a Rock: The Mysteries of Octopuses
David Scheel
Hodder Press, 320pp, £25

What an Owl Knows
Jennifer Ackerman
Oneworld, 352pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special