Do Octopuses Dream in Color?

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Octopuses are among the most unique creatures found in nature. There are roughly 300 species that are divided into varieties that live on and around the ocean floor and others that live in shallower waters such as coral reefs. They don’t have a skeleton but have a hard beak to crack shells with. They’re highly intelligent for an invertebrate. Their skin can change colors and textures for camouflage. They can eject a cloud of ink for defense and can regenerate lost tentacles.

PBS ran a fascinating film on these creatures, Octopus: Making Contact Anna Fitch, the film’s director, and David Scheel, the scientist featured in the film, set aside some time to discuss their experiences making the documentary.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: How did you come to be involved in the film Octopus: Making Contact?

ANNA FITCH: I had worked with David Allen (Producer of Octopus: Making Contact) on film about insects called BugWorld. He knew I had an affinity for invertebrates and reached out to me to see if I was interested in directing an octopus film. I said yes because many years ago, I had a relationship with an octopus myself.

I worked on a film called The Shape of Life, an 8-hour series on the 8 major animal Phyla – 7 of which are invertebrates. One of the hours was on Mollusks and I was put in charge of training a red octopus (Octopus rubescens) to learn to open a jar. I formed quite a bond with that octopus. He would flash colors at me and catch my eye from across the room if I was ever late feeding him. One day when he was in the filming tank he took my hand and slowly walked me around the entire perimeter of the tank.

In short, I had already experienced my own octopus love story and was thrilled to document another one.

Silhouette of diver with Giant Pacific Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini). Credit: © Minden Pictures/ Alamy Stock Photo

SI: Octopuses are so interesting and there are so many angles the subject matter could have been approached. How did the film’s narrative come together? Were there certain aspects of octopuses that you wanted to highlight?

AF: Foremost, we wanted to highlight their ability to connect and communicate with others (humans or other octopuses). The octopuses living socially in Australia (Octopolis) was always an important part of the story because of how it highlights social interaction. When it came to what we filmed in Alaska we remained openminded to how Heidi and Dr. David Scheel’s relationship would unfold. There were unexpected twists, like the close relationship that developed between Heidi and Laurel. And the scene where Heidi appears to be dreaming was a surprise; not something we set out to capture.

Laurel Scheel playing with “Heidi,” the octopus living with her family in Anchorage, Alaska. Octopuses in aquariums can remember and recognize individual human faces. Credit: © Passion Planet

SI: What was it like shooting octopuses at various stages of life? Was it difficult catching them doing things you were looking for?

AF: Heidi changed a lot over the course of filming. She started off camera shy, and by the end was stealing our cameras (GoPros). Octopuses are not an easy animal to wrangle. They are smart and stubborn. They have the ability to track your eyes, and if they figure out what you are trying to get them to do, they won’t do it. Sometimes we would leave the camera rolling and leave the room. Some of the most interesting material in the film was captured that way.

SI: How did you come to be involved in the film Octopus: Making Contact?

DAVID SCHEEL: I’ve worked around octopuses for 25 years including the entire time I was raising a family. Laurel has grown up with octopuses. Bringing them home was always an idea, a possibility. When David Allen approached me with the idea for the film, that brought the additional impetus and resources to give it a try.

Marine biologist Dr. David Scheel observing the octopus in his home in Anchorage, Alaska. Credit: © Passion Planet

SI: How long have you been researching octopuses? What was it that first attracted you to them?

DS: I’ve always liked octopuses – what’s not to like? Octopuses are inherently interesting creatures. I have also spent time studying African lions, bats and rodents, killer whales, seals, seabirds, and crabs, among other animals. They are all interesting. Over the years though, octopuses have stayed a constant while work with the others has come and gone.

SI: Can you just discuss how octopuses differ from most other animals in nature?

DS: Octopuses differ from many familiar animals, like mammals, birds, and fish, because they are not vertebrates, and have a very different body layout. Octopuses and their relatives are on another evolutionary branch of life that includes various worms, crabs and their relatives, the other molluscs like clams and snails, and so forth. Among these animals on the same large evolutionary branch as cephalopods, the octopus is considered more intelligent and increasingly it seems, more approachable. That may just be our own biases though.

SI: How intelligent are they? Do they have a concept of self?

DS: The film details ways in which octopuses are intelligent – their sophisticated sensory systems, ability to recognize individuals, react to different shapes, maintain their homes and so forth. Clearly, they have a basic biological sense of self – in a tangle of arms as two octopuses interact, for example, they don’t get confused over which arms are theirs. Scientists are still working out the details of whether and how octopuses can see color, and how they perceive their world. Sorting out their sense of self is still ahead of us, as is the case for many animals.

The common octopus (Octopus vulgaris). Credit: TheSP4N1SH / © Getty Images/iStockphoto

SI: Are octopuses social animals?

DS: The film explores this notion in some depth. Octopuses are not social in the sense of African lions, wolves, chimpanzees or honey bees: they are not known to form long term social groups that cooperate in bringing down prey or raising young. Octopuses do have some social abilities, as likely is common in animals. In rare instances they interact at levels beyond mating in the wild. They can apparently form relationships.

SI: What was it like living day to day with Heidi? Did she adjust to many of your habits inside the house, the way roommates would?

DS: My usual routine was to get up early and greet Heidi when she woke up in the morning – that was never captured on film but those were also magical moments as Heidi went through her morning grooming routine, shedding small white sucker discs into the water, which in the dimly lit aquarium always looked like a blizzard in an octopus snow globe.

As soon as we came home at the end of the day, Heidi commonly got up from her den for interaction on the glass and at the top of the tank. She enjoyed her interaction time. When I was leaving the house in the morning, it seemed like she would hang out at the end of the tank where she could see me walk away out the living room window.

Watch Octopus: Making Contact on the PBS website.

IMAGE SOURCE: TheSP4N1SH / © Getty Images/iStockphoto

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