the octopus, smart and handy
by Dr Floor Anthoni
in-depth logo Floor Anthoni

    Inkfishes (cephalopods) are fascinating creatures of the oceans because they have evolved from a very distant past, into forms that have many arms, excellent eye sight, an acute sense of smell and well developed brains. Today they are thought of as molluscs (soft-bodied) even though they do not resemble any of the typical molluscs of today, such as shells, clams and nudibranchs. In this article we'll have a close look at the most common shallow water inkfishes of New Zealand, in particular the brainy and handy octopus.
  • an old heritage: cephalopods developed from the earliest molluscs
  • octopus biology: its main characteristics and biology
  • other inkfish: paper nautilus, NZ squid and sepiola
  • octopus encounters: meeting an octopus is always amazing
  • related issues on this web site
  • external links: links to octopus information on the Internet 
  • books and references: books from the Seafriends library

An old heritage
It is thought that the inkfishes (cephalopods) originated from early gastropods (slugs and snails) some 500 million years ago in the Ordovician epoch of the Palaeozoic (see our Geologic time table). Their ancestor looked a bit like a large limpet, but with its internal organs in a different arrangement. Its head developed tentacles and its foot formed the funnel (jet pipe). Its mantle developed into a bag in which the gills are located and also its anus and sexual organs. Its external shell first developed into a cone, still worn by belemnites that became extinct with the dinosaurs.
Separate from this, some 400 million years ago, ammonoids and nautiloids developed with chambered coiled shells. Some fossil ammonoid shells (ammonites) were indeed quite big, up to one metre across! Today the only live inkfish wit an external shell is the Nautilus. All others have internal remnants of shells. (The ramshorn has a chambered internal shell)

evolution of cephalopods
How cephalopods could have evolved from early gastropods. Early gastropods (stomach-foot) of 600 million years ago had their gills at the rear of their bodies, rather than in front, as present gastropods have. Their heads developed tentacles, hence the name cephalopod (head-footed). The foot became a funnel (pipe). Early cephalopods had horn-shaped shells that eventually developed gas chambers to counteract their weight. This development led to the ammonites, belemnites and nautiloids. Squid and sepia developed streamlined long bodies with an internal shell and suckers on their arms. They also developed an extra pair of arms for catching prey with. Gills became larger for sustained swimming. Octopuses lost their shell and developed massive arms and a squat body.

Today's cephalopods are as varied as all other molluscs combined, even though they are not represented by as many species (marine molluscs 90,000; cephalopods 900). All cephalopods occur in the sea only and all are predators. The drawing below shows how varied they are.
cephalopod species
Main types of inkfish: 1.Grimalditeuthis richardi  2.Argonauta argo  3.Tremoctopus hyalinus  4.Nautilus pompilus  5.Chiroteuthis portieri  6.Octopus vulgaris  7.Loligo pealeii  8.Sepia officinalis  9.Chiroteuthis lacertosa  10.Tremoctopus hirondellei  11.Vampyroteuthis infernalis  12.Sepiola  13.Taonius pavo

Cephalopods are such weird creatures that their classification has been in constant revision, and is likely to be revised yet again. One would have thought that squid can be distinguished from octopus because they have ten arms instead of eight. However, the way inkfish have been grouped today, squid are those inkfish with hard hooks or saw-like cups around their suckers, whereas octopuses have soft stalked suckers. (See molluscs/classification/cephalopoda)

octopus biology
There are about 300 species of octopus (Gk: oktapous= eight feet), among the nearly 900 species of inkfish. As its name suggests, an octopus has eight highly developed arms with which it can capture prey, manipulate food and walk around on. Between its arms it has a tough skin (web) which it can use as a catch bag for catching prey in. An octopus has no bones and is entirely soft-bodied apart from some cartilage in its 'skull'. Because of this, an octopus can squeeze itself through small holes, a little larger than its eye. 
about ±300 species
Kingdom:  Animalia
Phylum:  Mollusca
Class:  Cephalopoda (Cuvier, 1797)
Order: Octopoda, the octopuses with eight arms
Family: Octopodidae
An octopus is not streamlined for swimming, like squid, but rather squat and more suitable for living in small quarters and crawling over rocks. An octopus has a powerful jet pipe which serves for exhaling, and as jet propulsion for swimming fast. Some octopus species do not live on the bottom but swim in the open sea. Like all other cephalopods, octopuses grow fast and do not live long (1-2 years).
octopus biology
schematic biology of the octopusThe diagram shows in simplified form what is inside and octopus. It has a horny parrot beak with strong muscles, enabling it to slice through its prey rapidly. In its mouth it has a radula with which it can scrape and chew, assisted by secretions from its salivary gland (and stomach) which often contains poisons to stun prey and attackers. Molluscs that live from clams, can in short time penetrate their shells and paralyse them. Not far from the mouth an octopus has a crop to store excess food. From there the food enters the alimentary canal (guts) to the stomach and further to exit from its anus. The anus is conveniently located before its funnel, such that its wastes (a long thin string) can be jetted out of the hole where it lives. There is also its ink sac which can be emptied rapidly as a black cloud.
Octopuses have large livers and kidneys to excrete wastes. Its gonads are located in the back of its body, but males have quite different sexual organs compared to females. Sperm passes through a spermatophore packing chamber before being ejected from the penis. Females have similarly a production chamber for making large eggs. They also have receptacles for the male spermatophores.
The mantle (bag) leaves quite a large space for breathing. By opening the mantle, water is breathed in and passed over the gills and, by squeezing the bag, out through the funnel, in a smooth movement. Contrary to most other water breathers, an octopus reverses the flow of the water, which is rather energy-inefficient. However, as part of its jet propulsion method, a squid can swim fast over long distances while aerating its gills faster as it swims faster.
octopus beak, radula and shell showing holes
f960210: the parrot beak of an octopus has been removed and its radula, a soft 'tongue', pulled out. Through this tongue an octopus can excrete acids or poisons. The sand octopus drills holes in shells with its stomach acids that dissolve the limestone. By practice, it learns precisely to drill the hole where the shell's adductor muscles are. Notice the two other places where it tried.
mouth suckers of an octopus
f015902: the suckers on the eight arms become smaller and smaller towards its mouth, shown in the centre. With these fine suckers an octopus manipulates fine food particles. Females use them for stringing their eggs together, very precisely. Notice that the 'lips' close over its beak.
a large octopus showing no fear at all
f039933: a large octopus dominates its environment as a fierce predator, and the big ones do not show much fear. They can walk straight up to the photographer to admire all the shiny bits on his camera.
a large octopus breathing out through its jet pipe
f039934: a large octopus breathing out through its jet pipe. Notice the body bag on right and the orange flap to seal it against the jet pipe.  (Octopus gibbsi)

sharp eyes
Not many inkfishes have well developed eyes. The nautilus for example has a little pinhole which works much the same as a pinhole camera (not sharp while not sensitive to light either). Squid have large round eyes, particularly the deepwater giant squid, which are light sensitive but do not afford any detail. In general, those inkfish living in shallow well-lit waters, have developed good eyes, and octopuses indeed have very good eyes. They even have eye lids that allow them to squint and adjust to available light. From behavioural experiments, scientists think that octopus cannot distinguish colours but can distinguish brightness, size, orientation and form. But how then do they manage to mimic the colours of their environment so truthfully?

closeup shows skin structure and colour cells
f039515: a super closeup of a young octopus shows its skin structure and the individual colour cells (chromatophores) that enable it to change colour. An octopus is one of the few lower animals able to close its eyes (or is it the only one?).
head and eyes of a small octopus
f039516: An octopus has eye lids which it can close. Here it is squinting in the camera's modelling light. Between its eyes is its brain. Polynesian skindivers who catch octopus and then quickly need to kill it, bite it between the eyes to crush its brain.

In our aquariums we had a special tank for an octopus - a prison really. A new octopus would hide in the farthest corners, but once it lost its fears, it would always hang around right in front, watching the goings-on in the other tanks. In other words, with its mind it lived in the whole tank room, being quite aware of other objects and even prey moving in far away tanks.

masters of camouflage
Inkfishes can change their skin colours rapidly because they have skin cells with various colours, and can vary the sizes of these. Like a colour TV set, they have three layers of chromatophores with different base colours: black-brown, red-orange, orange-yellow. Each chromatophore can widen or shrink in size, thereby varying the intensity of its colour. Underneath the chromatophore layer are iridophores in the colours pink, yellow, green, blue, sliver and behind that is an opaque reflective layer of pure pearly white. Truly a photographer's dream of the ideal colour printing paper, except that the base colours do not match our eyes: cyan, magenta, yellow, black..

octopus skin biology
Schematic diagram of the skin of an octopus: The epidermis (top skin) protects the underlying skin and is totally transparent. Directly underneath are three layers of chromatophores with colours depending on each octopus species. Each chromatophore is surrounded by a ring of muscles, of which only eight are shown above. These small muscles open and close the colour cell under control of the nervous system. The three layers act independently, much like in a colour TV set. Underneath the colour cells is a layer of iridophores that produce a metallic sheen in the colours blue to pink to silver, also depending on species. Underneath is a pearly white reflecting layer that, by reflecting the light, amplifies the effect of all layers above it. Then finally there is a layer of muscles that can change the texture and look of the skin. In all, this is totally amazing and not found in any other mollusc or any other animal for that matter.

Of all cephalopods, the sepia (the Mediterranean sepia is Sepia officinalis) is the most amazing skin painter. Alas it does not occur in New Zealand. A sepia can change its colours so rapidly that it can mimic the rolling patterns of waves. When mating, it sports gaudy zebra patterns. A young sepia can literally disappear before one's eyes, no matter where.

camouflaged octopus
f009133: octopus are experts in camouflage, able to change their skin colour and texture to match the environment. Can you spot this octopus?
a well camouflaged octopus
f040308: in the centre of the picture sits an octopus. Can you see it? Where are its eyes?

regenerating arms
Up to a point, an octopus can regenerate lost arms. Quite often the tips of its arms are bitten off by fish with sharp teeth or by the odd crab defending itself, reason why it is often seen defensively curling up the tips of its arms. But when fishermen cut some legs off an octopus for use as bait, then discarding its body, the stumps cannot regrow. Male octopuses have one arm that is more important than all others, its mating arm (see octopus sex below). This arm is not used as often as the others, and it is kept hidden much of the time. It does not take part in exploring its surroundings either.
Every arm has fine taste buds with which the animal tastes its environment while crawling along. One of its arms does the scouting and when prey is detected, the octopus suddenly jumps forward, spreading its web wide to catch any escapees. It is a method that guarantees success. Think of an octopus as a walking catchbag.
part of an arm regrowing
f015904: an octopus can regrow the tips of its arms in case these are lost in a fight or bitten off by predatory fish.
mating arms of two octopus species
f960205: when dead and preserved, octopus species become difficult to distinguish but males have a special mating arm (the third on their right sides) which has a groove running along its entire length and a special tip to collect and deposit sperm packages (hectocotyl). This photo shows the tips of the reef octopus and that of the sand octopus.
an octopus lost its most important arms
f010737: an octopus has lost four of its most important frontal arms but can still survive.

arms or legs?
The name of the octopus says it all: eight feet. But these feet did not originate from the foot of the original limpet it evolved from. That foot developed into the octopus' funnel or jet pipe, whereas the eight feet of the octopus developed from mouth flaps, reason why they are attached to the head rather than the belly, and that they surround the mouth without leaving a gap. We have no word for such tentacles.
When one observes a living octopus, one sees immediately that its feet are not made for walking on, because they are floppy. In fact, these feet are enormously flexible and even more than hands, suitable for holding objects, which is precisely what octopuses use them for. So there is no doubt that the octopus' feet work more like arms and hands than legs and feet. We're thus quite happy to call them arms, however, they are very special:
How to lose an arm
While we were filming octopus and how they move, we caught a large octopus by enticing it out from underneath the rock where it lives. At the time we were also surrounded by inquisitive fish, snapper and blue cod. As soon as we held the octopus, a blue cod attacked and within two seconds bit off an arm. It did this by biting it high up where the arm begins, and then spinning around at a rate of about 4 times per second. To remove such an arm with a diver's knife would certainly have taken a lot longer. While scurrying away, the blue cod was persecuted by snapper and a fight ensued for the severed arm, resulting in everyone getting a bit. Then another blue cod attacked. We now had an octopus with only six arms and not much would be left had we not returned it to its safe lair under the stone.
The ninth hand
The jet pipe of an octopus is more than just for swimming and breathing. It uses it for all kinds of purposes. It is an excellent digging tool for removing sand and it can puff at animals that come too close for comfort. Female octopuses use it to spout their eggs towards their finest suckers by their mouths, and later to aerate the eggs and to keep them clean from sediment. But it can also be used to feel around, while not exposing its arms. It works like this:
Imagine yourself in your garden with a garden water hose. Adjust it to a firm spout while standing in front of an object like a tree. Now close your eyes while moving the spout around. Every time it hits the tree, you feel the nozzle in your hands recoil because the water's recoil at the tree is passed up through the water spout. With your eyes closed, you are now able to get a fair idea of the objects around. This is how an octopus uses its water spout to feel around.
It also uses the spout to flush out crabs from their hideouts.
Killing the lights
Our octopus tank is very well secured, but in its ceiling of overlapping glass panes, tiny gaps of no more than 1cm squared can be found. One octopus found this by squirting its water spout around and finding no resistance. With the spout it could now explore what was hanging above its tanks - a fluorescent light. At one end of this light it found a very unusual sensation, an electric shock! Now one would think that this electrocution would have put him off for good, but this was not so. Instead it was fascinated by it, trying again and again, and getting shocked many times. In the end the light shorted out and its terminal pins gave way. The octopus had destroyed the whole armament, and it needed to be replaced. Of course the 1 cm gap was taped over afterwards. Now get a mental picture of this, as all the while the octopus hung down from the ceiling panes above the water, its body dipping sufficiently low into the water for it to be able to breathe and spout.
Liquefying the sand
The sand octopus is found in good numbers inside a sheltered harbour where also good numbers of shellfish are found, and where the tide does not go out. One such place is Whangamumu Harbour, just south of Cape Brett and the Bay of Islands. It is a favourite shelter for yachts and runabouts staying the night. Because of its shelter, the sand there is fine, not a problem for clams, the biggest ones burrowing deepest. For an octopus to catch a meal, it has to dig down to the level of the clam, and even deeper as the clam tries to escape. In the meantime the fine sand keeps caving in, rendering the exercise futile. I've tried to do this myself, but the crater I create becomes wider and wider rather than deeper.
Then I happened upon a small crater of no more than 20cm across (the size of a hand). It had caved in by about 2cm (a finger's width), showing a perfectly horizontal plane of fine sand, rather than a cone.  I touched the sand inside the crater, and it was completely liquid, allowing me to reach all the way down to the bottom, some 25cm down (to my wrists). What was going on here? Why had the crater not collapsed? 
I then realised that octopuses have a trick up their sleeves, being able to liquefy fine sand by pumping some of their ink (a protein mix) into it. Once the sand is liquefied, the octopus just needs to reach down and pull its victim up. That day I found several liquefied craters.
Coveting shiny objects
Octopuses appear to like shiny objects. Underwater photographer Kim Westerskov recalls an encounter with a large octopus that had no fear at all. It walked right up to him and grabbed his underwater camera, subjecting it to a thorough inspection. What's more, it wanted to take off with it. So a fight followed, and the octopus backed off. However, the camera's lens had been bent and could not be used again.

I had a similar experience at Great Barrier Island when a large octopus made a beeline for my movie camera. It pulled at the camera and could have done damage to it, but recalling Kim Westerskov's experience, I went along with it. Instead I used my movie lights to distract it, and the animal let go. But it stayed around, watching my every move as I was filming.

While diving at Island Bay in Wellington, my camera suddenly was jerked sideways, as an octopus was intent on keeping it. After I managed to pry the animal from the rock, I also managed to hand my second camera to my son, who then filmed the affair. It ended all happily, giving both the octopus and us an unforgettable experience!

octopus sex
The male octopus has one special arm (third right) which is slightly modified for mating. Along its side runs a shallow groove through which its spermatophores can travel towards its tip. Inside the male's body, the sperm is packaged into larger packets (spermatophores= sperm bearers) that can swim, and that have a trigger mechanism to open it. The male inserts its inadequately short penis into the base of the groove, and sperm collects at the very end, which is called a hectocotyl (Gk: hectos= hundred; cotyle= cup). Hence an octopus is the only animal with an extension penis!
Females have a special receptor inside the bag, for the male's sperm which can lay dormant for weeks inside the body of the female. When laying her eggs, the female fertilises them while the male is long gone. Like all cephalopods, octopuses lay large eggs with lots of yolk, and encapsulated by a tough membrane. After several weeks the young hatch as complete miniature adults, without going through a larval stage which is common in other molluscs. Once freed, they swim with their small jet pipes, changing colour and spouting ink! The baby octopuses are very good at hiding and are seldom seen.
The sand octopus (O. gibbsi) assembles her eggs into strings, hanging down from the ceiling of her lair. This is very similar to the Mediterranean octopus (O. vulgaris). But the reef octopus (Pinnoctopus cordiformis) pastes her eggs flat against the top and sides of her den. Because this octopus lives inside rock cavities with narrow openings, its eggs cannot be seen by divers and underwater photographers.
sand octopus mating
f021733: when mating, the female hides in her den while the male remains at arm's length. With his mating arm he visits the body bag of the female as shown here. (Octopus gibbsi)
mating arm of male octopus entering body bag of female
f021732: closeup of the female and the male mating arm entering her body cavity where packets of sperm (spermatophores) are deposited. When laying her eggs, the female breaks these sperm packets to fertilise her eggs herself.
female octopus laying eggs on an aquarium window
f002706: a female sand octopus lays her eggs through her jet pipe which she funnels really small onto her mouth. Each egg has a sticky thread. With the finest suckers around her mouth and using her finest tentacles, she gathers the eggs into strings and attaches these to the wall.
female octopus guarding her eggs
f022604: a female octopus guarding her strings of eggs inside her safe den. This sand octopus cements her eggs to the ceiling of her den and then ventilates these with her jet pipe. She stops eating and will die shortly after her eggs hatch. Notice the absence of large suckers on her arms. This is a very large female, compared with the little slender roughy fish in middle right.

house with a view
Octopuses are quite ingenious in the ways they seek out a suitable spot, and in the ways they adapt such a spot by dragging stones towards it.
turned stones reveal an octopus den
f010715: even though an octopus is well camouflaged, its presence can often be seen from a distance. Notice how a number of stones have been dragged together and some turned, showing their white bottom sides. The octopus sits behind the small dark hole, in this case a large female sand octopus guarding her nest of eggs.

Because octopuses do not live long lives, we return our animals to the sea before winter, in order to allow them to mate before dying. This also implies that in spring a new, young one needs to be caught. To our surprise, each octopus had a different personality which showed in their behaviour and preference for certain games. It also showed in the manner they reacted and played with people, and in the way they entertained themselves.
a young girl playing with a big octopus
f950626: a young girl has befriended a male octopus. By visiting it regularly and touching it, she established a relationship that remained unique. Here she is touching a male octopus who appears to like it. Notice the few large suckers on this reef octopus (Pinnoctopus cordiformis). Only males have such large sucker cups.
the octopus crawls out of its tank to shake hands
f217309: the octopus crawls out of its tank to shake hands with children who quickly discover that an octopus is not a horrible animal but can be quite affectionate. Several children have wet hairs from the octopus' playful water spouts, which can be very accurate. Notice the fluorescent lights above the octopus tank.

Shaking hands with children
In the Seafriends' marine aquariums we have a tank dedicated to a single octopus. It is almost hermetically sealed, for octopuses are escape artists and can squeeze themselves through very small holes. We catch a baby octopus by placing a peanut butter jar under water, hidden in between some rocks. Soon enough a small octopus will make this its home. Catching it then becomes simply placing one's hand over the jar and quickly screwing the lid back on. In the aquarium the octopus soon finds its way out of the opened jar, but then our 'training' begins. Every day we spend half an hour 'playing' with the octopus, which in the very beginning consists of merely putting one's arm in the tank, and then day by day closing in on it. Finally it will reach out to our hand, and eventually the pulling and pushing becomes play. By about three weeks, an octopus is 'tamed' and has no fear. It can then also be fed by hand.
When schools visit Seafriends for an unforgettable day out, the tank is opened to allow children to interact. Soon the octopus hangs over the glass, extending its arms to say hello, while children scream from excitement, and from their suppressed fears. Only the very daring allow their hands to be held by the octopus.
Because octopuses grow so fast, we have to return them to the sea before winter, and catch a new one in spring. Unfortunately, after many years, the octopus had to make room for the creation of a complete ecosystem where the aquarium's sea water is no longer replaced but only recirculated. In such a system, an octopus becomes an unbearable burden, as it is rather voracious while growing fast. Perhaps later when our ecosystem has proved itself, can we have another tame octopus.

other inkfish
In New Zealand only few of the many described cephalopods can be found in shallow water, and these we'll parade here.

Midget octopus, Octopus huttoni
Often on scallop beds a miniature octopus is found, small enough to live inside a scallop shell. Being so small, it is very hard to find, but scallop fishermen often encounter it amongst their catch.

one of the smallest species of octopus
f012303: the midget octopus is a very small species of octopus, no larger than one's thumb when mature. Here it has made a tiger shell its home. (Robsonella australis, Octopus huttoni)
midget octopus
f012313: midget octopuses are often found on scallop beds. Don't be mistaken. They can be very assertive and aggressive!

Sepiola (Sepioloidea pacifica)
sepioloidea pacifica sepiolaThe sepiola is only the size of one's thumb nail, a tubby squid with two little wings on the sides. It lives in sheltered places such as the entrances to deep harbours, and hides in fine sand. At night it rises not far above the sand, where it swims around, catching prey. When confronted with the diver's light, it dives back to the bottom where it disappears completely, partly by camouflage and partly by burrowing. Photos of the New Zealand sepiola are understandably rare.
tropical sepiolas mating
The NZ sepiola is nocturnal and rather rare, so we do not have a photo of it. But here are two tropical sepiolas photographed while mating. Truly amazing!
Photo courtesy Cal Mero, Australia.

f038535: a diver finds two spent paper nautilus shells. These are very fragile and disintegrate within a few months.

diver finds two spent paper nautilus shells

Paper nautilus (Argonauta nodosa)
The paper nautilus lives in deep water but in spring (October-November) females seek shallow water to deposit their egg cases. It is a hazardous task because the animals have no defence against predatory fish and diving sea birds (petrels and shags), so they do this at night. The egg capsules wash up on beaches of remote islands like Great Barrier Island, and they fall in between rocks where divers find them. The paper nautilus shell is extremely fragile and dissolves back into seawater within a few months.
It is not known whether females return to the deep and whether they return year after year until they die. Most likely they will make the trip only once and die soon after. However, their egg capsules are found in various sizes, from as little as 5cm across to as large as 25cm, suggesting that some do not grow well during their short lives.
The female has two flattened arms that secrete the shell, as they also hold it. The male paper nautilus is very small indeed but with an extended mating arm which can be detached and left inside the female's mantle cavity.
Paper nautilus (Argonauta argo)
Paper nautilus (Argonauta argo). The paper nautilus shown here is not precisely the one found in New Zealand (Argonauta nodosa) but looks very much like it. Notice the flattened arms for moulding the egg capsule. The egg mass shown here outside the capsule, is normally located inside. On the right the tiny male with his long hectocotylus.

Ramshorn squid (Spirula spirula)
Ramshorn squid (Spirula spirula)The tiny ramshorn squid lives in deep water, never far from the bottom. It has an internal coiled and chambered shell for buoyancy (about 3-4cm across), and tiny fins at one end, allowing it to go up and down in the water column without the hassle of the air expanding. When they die after breeding, and become decomposed by other creatures, their intact shells float up to the surface where winds may blow them ashore in large numbers. The spiral shells easily break apart.

Broad squid (Sepioteuthis australis)
The broad squid hunts over the continental shelves, never far from the bottom. It hunts in small packs of a few to 20-40 individuals. In spring it comes to the shallows where females lay their eggs and attach these to stick-like objects like the stalked kelp or finger sponges. Each egg capsule comes with a sticky thread that is carefully wound around the stick. After a few weeks to one month, the young hatch as miniature individuals, changing colour, swimming with their jet pipes and squirting ink - instant squid!

a young broad squid
f041707: This ink fish is a young broad squid (Sepioteuthis australis). Squid and cuttlefish have ten arms, two of which much longer than the others. Hidden inside skin folds, they can shoot these tentacles out to catch unsuspecting prey, and they are very good at it.
Broad squid (Sepioteuthis australis)
f049334: a young broad squid (Sepioteuthis australis). Notice its wings spanning its entire body. With these wings they can move forward as easily as backward, and they can maneuver in all directions. But when fleeing, they use their jet propulsion. Within 6 months they mature, and they die before the end of the year, weighing over 1kg.
marauding band of young broad squid
f049328: a marauding band of young broad squid. By changing colour, they can camouflage themselves while sneaking up to an unsuspecting triplefin or other small fish. Once the long catch tentacles shoot out, there is no escaping.
cluster of broad squid eggs
f025811: a cluster of broad squid eggs attached to a stalked kelp. Each egg capsule has 4-6 embryos and a long string which the female attaches securely to a stick-like object. Capsules feel rubbery and stretch likewise. This cluster is the work of perhaps 5 females working together or in succession.
squid egg capsules
f039815: details of squid egg capsules. First the capsules are opaque white, but by the time the little squids hatch, they become transparent, clearly showing the baby squids inside, with their large eyes. The brown 'paint' is probably a benthic dinoflagellate (Ostreopsis).
babt broad squid with egg yolk
f039812: under water one can 'pop' a squid egg, which releases the little squid inside. Here is a 10mm small baby broad squid, still with its egg sac. Amazingly, they can change colour rapidly and also spout ink! Notice the chromatophores (colour cells) and very small fins that will expand later.

Night dive with squid
While swimming back from a night dive in Leigh harbour, I happened on a school of large broad squid that were attracted by the permanent lights on the wharf. Having seen how fast a broad squid can demolish its prey with its parrot beak, I was rather intrepidated, being surrounded by fifty of these devouring beasts. But they were just interested in the movie lights. The most courageous one shot forward, grasping the light and holding on to it. That gave me a chance to stroke its almost luminescent green-white belly, something it appeared to enjoy as it was flashing wave patterns over its back, which immediately drew the other squid nearby. Then they had turns clasping the light while being stroked, and their skin patterns became weirder and flashier! They were crowding around me, keen not to miss a moment. Then the battery ran out.

distribution of notodarus sppArrow squid (Nototodarus sp.)
New Zealand has two species of arrow squid, the smaller Nototodarus gouldi (26cm) around the North Island, and the larger Nototodarus sloanii, (30cm, 1kg) around the South Island where it thrives profusely in the upwellings of the Subantarctic Front. The map shows their respective distributions. The Subantarctic Front is an upwelling area between the cold subantarctic water and the warmer temperate water that engulfs New Zealand. Sea life is very rich there, with large predating sea mammals like fur seals, dolphins and sperm whales surrounded by untold many sea birds, including yellow-eyed penguins.
These arrow squids are fast swimmers, growing from a 4mm egg to maturity in a mere 200 days, when they mate and die. Females blow a mysterious egg capsule, a kind of balloon, measuring over one metre across. It is not known how they do this, but it may begin with a much smaller egg capsule which grows by itself by drawing water from the outside through the process of osmosis (water going through a membrane from a lower to a higher concentration). See photograph below.
In 1982/83 and 1983/84 the NZ squid catches were 63,700 and 87,000 tonnes of which 71-94% was N. sloanii.

arrow squid (Loligo opalescens) from California
An arrow squid (Loligo opalescens) from California is laying a complicated egg capsule in an egg-laying frenzy. Afterwards, one finds these egg capsules tied together in large masses, lying on the sandy bottom, while the parents die.
Photo courtesy  Scott Gietler.
egg mass of NZ arrow squid (Nototodarus sloanii)
f052307: the NZ arrow squid (Nototodarus sloanii) lays capsules as shown left, but does not attach these. Instead they float around, gradually growing (by osmosis?) to transparent balloons of over one metre across. Inside these tough membranes, their offspring is well protected.

octopus encounters
Meeting an octopus underwater always brings a sense of excitement because each has its own personality. One can learn from octopuses in books and even on film, but it can never replace an encounter with a live octopus under water. Here are some examples.

a young reef octopus out at night (Pinnoctopus cordiformis)
f035330: a young reef octopus (Pinnoctopus cordiformis) hunting in the night. Octopi can feel and taste with their many arms, and do not need their excellent eyes for hunting prey. The reef octopus feeds mainly on crabs and crayfish. It is not an engineer and lives in a narrow hole in the rocky reef. (Pinnoctopus cordiformis, previously Maori Octopus, Octopus maorum)
a sand octopus above its den (Octopus gibbsi)
f028305: a sand octopus (Octopus gibbsi) has crawled out of its protective den which it carefully built underneath large rocks. The sand octopus is an engineer who changes his environment to suit. Around its den one finds the remains of its meal, in this case various burrowing clams. 

House with a view
Because octopuses have such excellent eyesight, they like to live inside a house with a view, rather than in an alley. Particularly the sand octopus has this preference. Being also a predator, eventually exhausting its food supply, it also needs to move frequently. It is not uncommon for an octopus to have various work huts in addition to the mansion with a view, where it returns. One can often find an octopus just sitting on a perch, enjoying the goings-on around it.

a well camouflaged octopus outside its den
f033529: octopuses like to see what is going on around them, like this large sand octopus resting well camouflaged outside its den. Around its entrance one finds shells from previous meals. The author often finds rare shells here.
an octopus tends a large whelk for its next meal
f039936: this sand octopus is tending and guarding a large trumpet whelk (Charonia rubicunda) for its next meal.  (Octopus gibbsi)
a large sand octopus and diver
f022819: a large sand octopus has but little time for the diver because inside its web it has caught a smaller octopus, which is to be cannibalised. In a fleeting moment it shakes hands with the diver.
the sand octopus takes refuge inside a disused cray pot
f022826: the octopus swims to its den inside a disused and decaying lobster pot to eat the large meal (another octopus) held inside its web. Notice the other empty shells around.  (Octopus gibbsi)
an octopus scavenging a conger eel
f009125: octopus are not only predators but also scavengers with a keen sense of smell. That is why they are so easily caught in crayfish pots and lobster traps. Here a sand octopus is feasting on a dead conger eel, thrown overboard in a fishing harbour.

Digging through gravel
Leigh Harbour attracts octopuses for an easy meal from bait and fish innards thrown overboard. One day I saw a fine small octopus, just the right size for our aquariums. It sat in the open on a large mound of gravel, heaped up by the propellers of fishing boats. It would be an easy catch as it had nowhere to go, and I could easily outswim a little one like this. So I quickly grabbed it and that would have been the end of it. However, constraining a live octopus, even a small one, is a tall order because it has a slippery skin and is very strong for such a little fellow. To my embarrassment, it escaped and began digging into the heap of gravel.
No problem here because a grown man can dig much faster. But then my disadvantage began to show. As the octopus was digging deeper, it placed the spoils behind it, whereas I had to displace the spoils in order to keep the hole from caving in. It didn't take long for the little fellow not only to disappear from sight, but also nowhere to be found! It had literally vanished into the heap of gravel. 

an octopus crawling
f017723: most of the time an octopus moves around slowly on all of its eight legs, crawling while testing every bit of its surroundings with the tips of its many legs. (Pinnoctopus cordiformis)
swimming octopus
f040311: an octopus can swim quite fast by blowing water out of its jet pipe. It sucks water in by opening its body bag and it squirts water out by sealing this bag against the jet pipe. The jet pipe is an octopus' ninth hand.
a skin diver finds a baby octopus
f022809: a skin diver finds a baby octopus well hidden underneath a protective rock. Octopus are very hard to find because they camouflage themselves so well. However, because they turn stones nearby, they can at times be spotted from a distance.
octopus protects itself with shells
f003708: being soft all over, an octopus loves hard things. Here it is using hard shells as an impregnable armour. A little fellow like this should have been scared by the much bigger diver, but its inquisitiveness wins.


Related issues (links to other sections on this web site):
Classification of NZ Cephalopods as part of the classification of NZ molluscs.
The year of the sea hares, an in-depth chapter about molluscs that can also spout ink.
Geologic Time Table: the periods in Earth's history, with maps and descriptions

External links an excellent article about cephalopods with many links for further reading. interesting and illustrated with photos and video  information and images of common cephalopods,3/en  cephalopods of the world, an annotated and illustrated catalogue of species known to date. UN Food & Agricultural Organisation Species Identification & Data Programme. Various publications, also in downloadable PDF.  The Octopus News Magazine Online: news, articles and other octopus information

Books and articles from the Seafriends library

Cousteau 1975: Octopus and squid.
Hanlon, Robert T & John B Messenger (1998): Cephalopod behaviour. Cambridge University Press.
Lane, Frank W 1957: Kingdom of the Octopus.
O'Shea, Steve 1999:  Octopoda (Mollusca: Cephalopoda). Biodiv mem 112, NIWA
Powell, AWB 1979: New Zealand mollusca: marine, land and freshwater shells. Collins.

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