“Many Things Under a Rock: The Mysteries of Octopuses”
By David Scheel; W.W. Norton, 2023; 307 pages; $28.95.
David Scheel, an octopus researcher and professor of marine biology at Alaska Pacific University, met his first octopus in 1995 in a Cordova aquarium. Although he had a background in animal behavior, at the time he had no experience with marine systems in Alaska; as he admits in his first chapter, “I had no experience with boats, nor saltwater, nor fisheries, nor underwater animals.”
However, there was funding following the Exxon Valdez oil spill to study damages, and octopuses had been identified as important for Native subsistence harvesting. Scheel submitted the only proposal for octopus research and was funded. Thus began his education not only in octopuses and Southcentral Alaska’s marine environment but in Alaska Native cultures.
“Many Things Under a Rock” takes its name from the Eyak word for octopus, which literally translates as “rock under many-dwell.” The early parts of the book primarily discuss Scheel’s first fieldwork in Prince William Sound, capturing and documenting the region’s dominant octopus species, the giant Pacific octopus (which, despite its name, starts off as a tiny larval form and typically grows to between 30 and 60 pounds). He focused on a series of questions. Where were the octopuses? What characterized their habitats? What controlled their abundance?
The reader follows along as Scheel and his research team meet with residents of Tatitlek and Chenega Bay, and later Port Graham in Kachemak Bay, and are guided to locations for scuba diving. He also hears and records plenty of stories, some of them wildly fanciful or meant as lessons, about truly giant octopuses and “devilfish.” He accompanies elders at low tide to learn the traditional way of finding octopuses by feeling into dens with alder sticks. He very quickly discovers how much he has to learn from local people, and he seeks and respects all the traditional knowledge he can find.
Digressions from Scheel’s personal research carry readers into fascinating accounts of sea monsters, octopus biology and behavior, and octopus studies elsewhere. After his initial work in Alaska, Scheel himself conducted octopus research on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and along the coast of Madagascar, and those experiences from warmer locations feed into the book.
The author’s enthusiasm about the complex lives of octopuses and the many mysteries surrounding them underlies the entire book. Fun facts: There are more than 300 known octopus species in the world. (Scheel and his team eventually documented a previously unidentified one in Prince William Sound.) As mollusks, their neural and circulatory systems are very different from those of mammals; they have the equivalent of three hearts, and most of their neurons are not in the brain but spread throughout the body, especially in the eight arms. (One story Scheel tells is about a subsistence harvester who cut the legs off a body; while the men visited on the dock, the disconnected arms kept climbing the sides of the bucket, trying to escape.)
Octopuses also have an amazing ability to change the color and texture of their skin almost instantly to camouflage themselves or in response to meeting other octopuses, prey, or predators. They not only squirt water and ink for aggression or protection, but they grab up dirt and shell debris to throw at other octopuses — a use of tools. Their own body parts also act as tools — for drilling and chipping shells and pulling prey apart. When they sleep, they apparently dream — if one can judge by changes in color and texture that seem to be responding to emotional states. They do not see color, but they do see light polarization.
The study of captive octopuses has led to further understandings of the inner lives of octopuses and what might be thought of as their “intelligence.” The animals can clearly identify individual humans and respond to them with interest, affection, or negativity. Scheel once kept an octopus in a tank in his Anchorage home, and a PBS nature program, “Octopus: Making Contact,” documents the relationship between “Heidi” and his daughter, which might easily be called a friendship. Because Scheel the researcher often annoys his subjects by netting them for study, he is less popular and very likely to be sprayed. (In the film, he wears a rubber mask to try to hide his real identity from “Heidi.”)
One aside late in the book (in the chapter “Octopuses in Domestic Relationships”) discusses Gregory Bateson, an interdisciplinary scholar who himself had studied octopuses. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961, Bateson wrote a letter to the Kennedy administration highlighting parallels between the nuclear crisis and the behaviors of octopuses. Bateson felt that the quarantine of Cuba had provoked the Soviets just as one octopus might provoke another. He had found that when octopuses, which are usually solitary creatures, were put together, the larger and stronger one would show its strength and then retreat, as though saying, “I could hurt you but I won’t.” The two could then coexist without fighting.
In his chapter “Global Octopuses,” Scheel notes that ocean temperatures affect much else, including currents and the availability of nutrients that support an entire food web. After record temperatures in the North Pacific in 2014-2016, numbers of the cold-water octopuses in his study area as well as in Washington state declined sharply. He concludes, “I began my quarter-century of fieldwork in Prince William Sound with concerns about the spilled oil from the Exxon Valdez and its effects on octopuses and their habitats. I ended with similar worries as the first signs emerged of the current and anticipated effects on octopuses from climate change and the warming oceans.”