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Master of disguise: Octopus

October 22, 2012

There’s no other reef animal quite like the octopus (fe’e). Although it looks like a large, unprotected meal for some big fish, it is hardly defenseless. The octopus is the “master of disguise” for its superb ability to become invisible by changing the color and texture of its skin to match its surroundings. With its good eyesight and well-developed brain, it is probably the most intelligent of all invertebrates. And if camouflage and quick wits don’t suffice, it can either squeeze down very small holes or escape by jet propulsion, leaving its calling card, an inky cloud that acts as a decoy or smoke screen to momentarily confuse a predator while the octopus vanishes.

The octopus commonly seen locally is the reef octopus, Octopus cyanea, which is mottled red-brown in color with a large spot beneath each eye. It typically weighs 2-3 lbs. It is a mollusk, related to squid, snails, and clams, but the octopus lacks a shell and has eight strong arms covered with suckers. It breathes by sucking water into its mantle cavity and over its gills; it then expels the water through its funnel. If threatened by a predator, it can expel this water forcefully, causing it to jet away.

Fe’e feed on crustaceans (crabs, shrimps, lobsters) and mollusks (cowry snails) by creeping up on them. After pouncing on an unsuspecting prey, the octopus holds it tightly with its suckers until it can bite the animal with its parrot-like beak and inject a toxin to paralyze the prey. It may take its meal back to the safety of its den (the reef hole it calls home), and that’s why there are often telltale bits of shells around an octopus den. Mating occurs year-round. The female lays her eggs inside her den and cares for them until they hatch. She then dies. When the eggs hatch, out pop miniature octopuses that are dispersed by water currents until they settle back onto the reef.

The octopus is a favorite food of local fishermen who often check particular holes on the reef known to be good den sites for fe’e. Octopus are taken by hand or spear and they account for about 5- 10% of all the fish and invertebrates harvested on our reefs. The drooping, pale gray octopus we see hung out for sale along the roadside is a ghoulish remnant of this crafty animal.

The octopus is also caught by a traditional lure (see photo at left) made of a large cowry shell that resembles a rat (isumu). That came about due to an event that happened long ago, as related in the Samoan legend about the octopus and the rat. It all started with a sightseeing canoe trip on the ocean by an owl, a snail, and a rat. Their canoe started to sink, so the owl escaped by flying away, the snail sank with the canoe to the bottom of the ocean (goto uga), and the rat tried to swim to shore but it had a long way to go. It saw an octopus and called for help. The octopus agreed and swam to shore with the rat on his head. When they got to shore, the rat jumped off and thanked the octopus for saving his life and
said that he left a little present on the octopus’s head. When the octopus realized that there was a rat dropping on his head, he became extremely angry and told the rat, if I ever see you again, I’ll kill you. To this day, the octopus is mad about this and is still looking for the rat.

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