Octopus exhibit will give Oklahoma Aquarium visitors a fun, new experience

Octopus exhibit will give Oklahoma Aquarium visitors a fun, new experience

Spineless and scatter-brained may technically describe Jenks’ newest resident, but these terms are hardly pejorative where he’s from. In the cold shallow waters of the Pacific Northwest, it’s fairly common not to have a backbone or centralized nervous system. With three hearts, nine brains, and eight arms, the Giant Pacific Octopus isn’t your average Oklahoman.

The Giant Pacific Octopus, like all octopuses (and yes, that’s the correct plural noun) is a mollusk, which is a group of invertebrates that includes clams, sea slugs, and snails. But despite its humble lineage, the octopus has evolved some incredibly complex adaptations. The cells of their skin contain specialized structures, called chromatophores, that allow them to change their color and texture in an instant, allowing them to confuse and surprise both predators and prey. Their boneless bodies can morph into nearly any shape imaginable; and they can squeeze through almost any crack, crevice, or opening–provided it is larger than their tough, venomous beak. To put this in perspective, a hundred pound octopus can squeeze through an opening the size of a dime.

But perhaps their most admirable adaptation is their intelligence. Octopuses can differentiate human faces, open child-proof medicine jars, and escape any enclosure that is not 100% secure. In fact, some aquariums have even documented instances of sneaky octopuses who would escape their tank at night to steal neighboring fish for a midnight snack. But how and why does this solitary invertebrate need such a powerful and creative nervous system?

The Octopus exhibit at the Oklahoma Aquarium will open this spring.
Photos/Alyssa Rodriguez of the Oklahoma Aquarium

Over 300 million years ago, long before terrestrial living was trendy and bilateral symmetry was a standard body plan, fierce competition for food and constant threats from predators led the octopus to evolve innovative hunting strategies and effective camouflaging techniques. This meant they would need a nervous system to help evaluate which approach to take, and when to take it. All nervous systems are designed such that details about our world, sensory information, can inform our actions or movements. But this is even more complicated when you’re a Giant Pacific Octopus with nearly 2,000 suckers that can taste, touch, and move independently of one another. As with all octopus species, the suckers are distributed in two rows across eight jointless arms that can move in an infinite permutation of directions. The octopus nervous system requires a computational masterpiece to use all of this machinery efficiently. It tackles the problem of coordination through a well distributed nervous system: one main brain in the mantle (the bulbous, head-shaped part of the octopus), and one bundle of nerves, or “brain,” in each arm. Each arm’s brain operates independently of the other and is responsible for that arm’s respective suckers.

Having nine, independently operating brains means that octopuses are bound to have a lot of personality—or personalities. Even within the same octopus, individual arms (which have equal dexterity) may vary in their level of adventurousness as some are more likely to approach a novel object than others—a common test of shyness/boldness for many psychologists. Overall, they get frustrated and shoot water spouts at whatever is annoying them; they change colors when they get excited (usually red); some are shy while others are more gregarious or playful. 

Though there’s plenty of science to back it up, but the best way to see the human-like qualities in an octopus is to see one for yourself. This spring, anyone in Jenks can do just that by visiting The Secret World of the Giant Pacific Octopus at the Oklahoma Aquarium.

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