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WATCH: Octopuses Appear To Take Up Arms As Submarine Warfare Escalates

Aug 30, 2015
Originally published on September 3, 2015 3:25 pm

There may be an octopus arms race underway. And that's not even a joke about tentacles: Octopuses are actually fighting, and potentially using weapons.

The creatures are hardly team players under the best of circumstances.

"Octopuses in general are regarded as fairly solitary animals," says Peter Godfrey-Smith, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York and professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney. He is studying octopuses in Australia's Jervis Bay — specifically, the common Sydney octopus, also known as the gloomy octopus.

"A particular group of them have started living in higher concentrations than usual, which we think is because of some peculiarities of the site where they live," he tells NPR's Arun Rath. "And essentially, they've had to, we think, learn to get on a little bit. They've had to learn to interact more than octopuses normally have to do."

And, well, there's been some friction. The octopuses in the bay have been fighting — or "boxing," as Godfrey-Smith calls it — and some have even been bullying others.

"There seems to be a lot of fairly ornery behavior which has to do with policing and guarding territory," he says.

But it gets worse.

Those ornery octopuses have also taken to hurling objects at each other, like shells and bits of seaweed, blasting them through the water with high pressure. And while Godfrey-Smith says there may be other explanations for this behavior, the number of direct hits has him suspecting that the octopuses are using projectile weapons.

"It would be quite significant if it's happening," says Godfrey-Smith, who has been collaborating on this research with David Scheel of Alaska Pacific University. "In general, projectile use is pretty rare among animals."

He says they've got a lot more observing to do before coming to firm conclusions about the shell-chuckers. In the meantime, he refuses to be baited by sensationalizing reporters.

"The prospects for octopus takeover are still fairly remote at present," he says.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

OK, let's lighten things up a little bit. There may be an octopus arms race underway. That's not some lame joke about tentacles. Octopuses are actually fighting. It turns out the creatures aren't really team players.

PETER GODFREY-SMITH: Octopuses, in general, are regarded as fairly solitary animals.

RATH: Peter Godfrey-Smith is a marine biologist at the Graduate Center City University of New York. He's studying octopuses in Jervis Bay, Australia.

GODFREY-SMITH: A particular group of them have started living in higher concentrations than usual, which we think is because of some peculiarities of the site where they live. And essentially, they've had to, we think, learn to get on with a little. They've had to learn to interact more than octopuses normally have to do.

RATH: There's fighting, what Peter calls boxing, and even bullying.

GODFREY-SMITH: There seems to be a lot of ornery behavior, which has to do with policing and guarding territory.

RATH: And it gets worse - the ornery octopuses also hurl objects.

GODFREY-SMITH: Shells, sometimes it's bits of seaweed and then blast out the contents of what they're holding under high pressure.

RATH: Peter says there may be other explanations for this behavior. But the number of direct hits has him suspecting the octopuses are using projectile weapons.

GODFREY-SMITH: It would be quite significant if it's happening. In general, projectile use is pretty rare among animals.

RATH: Peter's been collaborating on this octopus work with David Scheel from Alaska Pacific University. And he says they've got a lot more observing to do before coming to firm conclusions about the shell-chucking octopuses. In the meantime, he refuses to be baited by sensationalistic reporters.

Have you seen Stanley Kubrick's "2001"?

GODFREY-SMITH: Yes I have.

RATH: Remember the apes and the monolith? It's just a hop, skip and a jump from weapons to rocket ships, right?

GODFREY-SMITH: A hop, skip and a fairly substantial jump. The prospects for octopus takeover I think is still fairly remote at present.

RATH: Marine biologist Peter Godfrey-Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.