A book for anyone who loves animals
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration in the Wonder of Consciousness, by Sy Montgomery
Sy Montgomery’s deep love and understanding of the natural world makes The Soul of an Octopus a real page-turner. Readers will find adventure, conflict, moral dilemmas, sad partings, and even a romantic scene between two octopuses. (Yes, that is the correct plural of octopus.) The event, dubbed “The Octopus Blind Date,” takes place every Valentine’s Day at the Seattle Aquarium. Montgomery quotes the aquarium’s lead invertebrate biologist, “The matings I’ve seen are such a ball of arms, you can’t tell apart the individual animals.” People flock to the event by the thousands.
Montgomery delivers much of her ode to octopuses through her encounters with the residents at the Boston Aquarium. She bonds strongly with each animal, and through her deep affection and respect, we come to love them too.
While spinning her captivating tale, Montgomery also teaches us a lot about these remarkable mollusks, which have earned a non-deserved bad rap over the years. (They are gentle with humans who don’t threaten them, and will evade rather than attack those who do.) If they mean to do an attacker harm, however, they certainly can. Their ink contains tyrosinase, an enzyme that will irritate eyes and clog gills, and their bite is venomous, although only one (the blue-ringed octopus) is fatal to humans. An octopus leg has 1600 suckers each of which can lift 30 pounds. If you choose to tangle with an octopus, the octopus will likely win.
While Montgomery gives octopuses the starring role in her book, she also includes amusing anecdotes and scientific data on a plethora of other sea-dwellers found at the Boston Aquarium: the painted turtle (called Killer) who falls in love with a pumpkinseed fish, a clever lumpfish who suffers from unrequited love, an exotic arowana, electric eels, anacondas, and a sea star who likes to carry around the eyes of a Mr. Potato Head after his octopus tank-mate has dismantled it. The list goes on. The Soul of an Octopus is vastly entertaining, as well as informative. In order to observe octopuses in the wild, Montgomery learns to scuba dive. Her self-deprecating descriptions of those attempts are some of the most amusing in the book.
Although humans are physically quite different from octopuses - they have no backbone, no ears, their mouth is between their legs, their saliva can dissolve flesh, and they possess three hearts and an avian-like crop - we also share many qualities. Like humans, octopuses are curious, clever, and playful. They recognize friends. Octopuses do so through their suckers, each of which possesses 10,000 chemoreceptors that can “read” chemical information, such as the species, sex and health of a subject from 30 yards. They also express moods, turning red when they’re excited or angry, and white when they’re calm. Females tend to their eggs with mammalian fervor.
In addition, Montgomery believes, octopuses have souls. The octopuses that Montgomery writes about display unique personalities, form strong bonds with their handlers, exhibit a sense of self versus other, and most definitely live on in their handlers’ memories after the animals die. To put it in scientific terms she quotes Steven Hawking: “Humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals…including octopuses also possess these neurological substrates.”
Montgomery at times anthropomorphizes, and some readers might take exception to this. But all will admire her dedication to the natural world, her willingness to understand rather than to judge, and her commitment to demonstrate that if we take the time to learn about the animals with whom we share this planet, we can learn a lot about ourselves.
The Soul of an Octopus is available at the Norwich Bookstore and wherever books are sold.