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:
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.
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.]