Understanding the octopus and its relationships with humans

A giant Pacific octopus shows its colors at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

A giant Pacific octopus shows its colors at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

While other octopus books study the animal’s behavior in aquaria or tropical waters worldwide, Dr. David Scheel, a professor of Marine Biology at Alaska Pacific University, takes a unique approach in his first book, Many Things Under a Rock. He travels to extreme places in the Pacific Northwest where one may not expect these creatures to live, but they have for approximately 330 million years

“I think it is a little surprising to some people that octopuses live in cold water,” Scheel told Ars. “It might be because we’re used to seeing them in aquariums, and we think of aquariums as tropical locations, although you can run cold water aquariums as well.”

Personal experience

In Many Things Under a Rock, Scheel regales the reader with anecdotes of his time researching cephalopods in Alaska and Canada. From yearly tracking of octopus dens to discovering new octopus “cities,” Scheel’s chapters give engaging and informative stories on marine biology. Between these chapters are Indigenous stories about octopuses in the Pacific Northwest, revealing their influence on the area’s native tribes.

As Scheel’s research focuses on how octopuses have survived in freezing temperatures, the findings within his new book have become especially relevant in the wake of warming oceans. “As the planet warms up from climate change, we run into some challenges regarding how the octopus can grow and the environments it faces,” Scheel said. “When cold waters are at the ocean’s surface, it usually means the oceans are well mixed, which means that there’s a lot of bottom water near the surface because everything can turn over. So, you get a lot of nutrients. In the early spring, for example, when the sunlight returns, and you have nutrients in the water, you get these big productive plankton blooms.” These productive blooms help expand the amount of prey for octopuses in the region to feed on, which in turn allows the octopuses to get bigger.

However, as the book describes, the Arctic oceans are warming, and Scheel has noticed the opposite effects: fewer blooms and, thus, smaller octopuses. “In addition, other animals are also hungry,” Scheel said. “So, there are more predators. If you combine those two conditions of prolonged growth, so the octopus stays small for a longer period, and more predators that eat small things, then you run into a period in which is very tough for an octopus.”

Scheel and his research team are trying to determine how much a warmer ocean affects an octopus’s life cycle in the Pacific Northwest. Within his book, Scheel dives into other effects that climate change could have on the future of octopuses and what people can do to help.

By combining descriptive storytelling and vivid facts, Scheel’s book showcases the mysteries of octopus behaviors, which he and other researchers are working to unravel. Although 300 species of octopuses exist, as Scheel explains within his work, very few have been studied due to their elusive nature and almost otherworldly ability to hide in plain sight. Many Things Under a Rock summarizes current findings about these creatures that have captured the collective imagination for centuries and what researchers hope to find in the future.

The many arms of culture

Having studied octopuses for over 25 years, Scheel shows how his research goes beyond simply marine biology, as he also considers the influences of octopuses in indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest. As Scheel writes: “Indigenous science seeks not only to understand but also to respect people and the natural world.” By telling excerpts of Native Alaskan stories, Scheel reveals how humans have adopted octopuses into their histories and even genealogies.

As Scheel explained in our interview, “When I started octopus research, I worked with the Native Alaskan communities, which was part of the story. It seemed inappropriate to leave it out.” In Many Things Under a Rock, Scheel highlights that the octopus is seen as a “symbol of knowledge in some native cultures.” He told Ars that it’s an apt metaphor: “You can see that in the way the arms reach into everything and explore every nook and every cranny, in the way octopuses are such curious animals.”

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Throughout his book, Scheel compares indigenous stories with hands-on science. “I got a lot of joy out of the resonance between the different perspectives that you would find in Alaska Native cultures, or First Nations cultures in Canada, Hawaiian cultures, and trying to do science with octopuses,” he told Ars. “I found it intriguing to find parallels between how octopuses were portrayed in legends and how they were portrayed in science. This book talks about the giant octopuses that destroy native villages in some of the cultural heritage of the Alaskan Natives. Then these giant octopuses, or possibly not, wash up on shores [in other places] and get reported in scientific journals.”

Scheel’s in-depth research and relationships with these indigenous peoples showcased in his book illustrate a strong passion for cephalopods that readers will undoubtedly enjoy. Many Things Under a Rock speaks to avid octopus fans and the broader audience interested in the intersections between science, history, and folklore.

Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is the science communicator at JILA (a joint physics research institute between the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado Boulder) and a freelance science journalist. Her main writing focuses are quantum physics, quantum technology, deep technology, social media, and the diversity of people in these fields, particularly women and people from minority ethnic and racial groups. Follow her on LinkedIn or visit her website.