The coolest animal in the world

As a marine biologist it’s my job to understand the complex workings of our mysterious ocean planet, and to wrestle with the great questions of our time. One that has been exercising me lately is this: What is the coolest animal on earth? After considerable deliberation, I’ve made my decision. And I don’t say this lightly:

For my money no member of the animal kingdom has more justifiably earned the overused term “awesome” than the mimic octopus, Thaumoctopus mimicus. Any acquaintance of an octopus knows they’re cool, but this guy takes it to a whole new level. It is the supreme master of disguise, morphing at will like a comic-book superhero from one bizarre model to another. And I’m not talking about some lame color change like a chameleon, although that’s part of it — the critter glides along, instantaneously switching the texture of its skin, the pattern, and  the way it moves, to create uncanny mimics of a wide range seaweeds, fishes, and various inanimate objects as shown in this helpful field guide.

Not only does the octopus channel a flounder visually, it swims exactly like one, even following the contours of the sand ridges as a flounder does — and then magically . . . it’s a lionfish. But wait, there’s more: now it’s a sea snake. And so on.  This has got to be one of the most — yes, awesome — videos I’ve ever seen:

Aaawww!

Indeed these general skills, though especially finely developed in the Indonesian mimic, are common to the octopus family as a whole. In case the video is not enough, some additional evidence in support of my case for ultimate coolness:

Beauty. Octopuses are exquisite animals. Come on, admit it. And the babies are as cute as can be.

Industry. Glamorous as it is, the octopus is not just a pretty face — they use tools to do stuff, like carry around coconuts and hide in them.

Victorious Paul: "Eight for eight!"

 

Octopus got game. They ‘re smart — smarter than most football hooligans anyway (which, admittedly, is not setting the bar very high). Exhibit A: Paul the psychic octopus, who flawlessly called every game of last year’s World Cup finals, culminating in Spain’s victory over the Netherlands, and prompting Elena Espinosa, the Spanish environment and fisheries minister, to proclaim (I am not making this up):  “On Monday, I shall be at the European Council of Ministers and I shall be asking for a [fishing] ban on Paul the octopus so the Germans do not eat him.”

Got a better candidate? Bring it.

[Editor's note: I discovered midway through preparing this that veteran science blogger Ed Yong's very first post at Not Exactly Rocket Science (reprinted here) was a profile of the mimic octopus. I highly recommend his account for more detail on this fabulous animal.]

 

11 Responses to “The coolest animal in the world”

  1. Chaz Ruckstuhl says:

    Amazing creature. Thanks so much for enlightening us. In this age of virtual fun, this animal reminds us that Mother Nature still has the upper hand.

    You da man!

  2. Zen Faulkes says:

    There is a possibility that the mimic octopus’s power of imitation has been oversold:

    http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2009/04/is-mimic-octopus-misnamed.html

    • Emmett Duffy says:

      Some good points there Zen. It’s true that the case for specific mimicries is built largely from qualitative observations. This is not too surprising since the creature lives in such a hyperdiverse, poorly studied area of the developing world. Heck, even this big beautiful charismatic octopus was not described formally until 2004! (imagine what the situation for amphipod taxonomy must be there . . .).

      But to me this is an issue about the big picture rather than the nuances. And all you need is the video to see it. (1) CLEARLY this animal is shifting among an amazing variety of personae (for lack of a better word) that involve simultaneous changes in color pattern, shape, motion, and position in the water column. (2) Most observers, professional and otherwise, intuitively grasp the striking resemblance between the octopus’s guises and other animals inhabiting the general region that happen to be dangerous. I agree with you that the case needs more rigorous documentation but obviously something extremely interesting is going on here and mimicry is a very strong hypothesis.

  3. Sorry. Tigers and otters are both cooler than octopuses.

    • Emmett Duffy says:

      A bold assertion – but we need evidence my friend!

      • I’ve been to the Atlanta Zoo where all that separates you from the tiger is a pane of safety glass. If you’re by the glass wall when the tiger walks by you WILL feel an uncertain anxiety/thrill move up your body from the soles of your feet to your hairline. It’s like stepping to the edge of the Grand Canyon.

        As for otters, there’s a Nature program that shows otters hectoring a crocodile away from their site by the river. If it weren’t for the needle-sharp otter teeth, you’d swear they accomplished this by the force of laughter alone.

        I love to watch an octopus turn itself into a liquid with muscles when it’s cornered, but the effect really isn’t the same. It’s a good choice for #3.

      • Robert Patterson says:

        Me thinks your debate about the coolest animal on the planet has a subjective component. The coolest part about that is neither of you has to be wrong…

  4. GotOcean? says:

    The supposed snake mimic also rather gave me the impression of a lobster backed up into a hole

  5. Alex Warneke says:

    Although I give full props to the Mimic Octo on this one…I found this little guy to be quite remarkable as well

    http://www.mbari.org/news/news_releases/2009/barreleye/barreleye.html

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