Lee, Henry. The Octopus: or, the “Devil-Fish” of fact or fiction. London : Chapman and Hall. 1875. Print.
[This book was recommended to me by Jacques Yves Cousteau in his novel The Silent World.]
When I accepted the position of Naturalist of the Brighton Aquarium, after the death of my valued friend John Keast Lord, it became my pleasant duty to watch and record events and circumstances connected with the habits and development of the denizens of the tanks. I have always endeavoured to observe carefully, to describe faithfully, to record facts rather than to propound theories, and to relate what I have seen and learned in language comprehensible by all.
— Henry Lee
More than 2200 years ago — nearly four centuries before the Evangelists wrote their imperishable histories of the events on which the faith of Christendom is based — Aristotle, the celebrated naturalist of Stageira, in Macedonia, recorded observations of the habits and reproduction of the Octopus which clearly show that he was more intimately acquainted with its mode of life than any writer of a later date between his day and ours. The animal has been long known to naturalists. The ancient Egyptians figured it amongst their hieroglyphics; whilst on a journey up to Nubia, up the Nile, in January, 1875, Mr. Eugenius Birch, the architect of the Brighton Aquarium visited the temple of Bayr-el-Bahree, Thebes (date, 1700 BC), the entrance to which had been deeply buried beneath the light, wind-drifted sand accumulated during many centuries. By order of the Khedive access was recently obtained to its interior by the excavation and removal of this deep deposit; and amongst the hieroglyphics on the walls were found, between the zig-zag horizontal lines which represent water, figures of various fishes so accurately portrayed as to be easily identified. With them was the outline of a squid 14 inches long. As this temple is 500 miles from the delta of the Nile it is remarkable that nearly all the fishes there represented are of marine species.
It is an old belief, sanctioned by Aristotle, that the broad membranous expansions of the argonaut’s two arms, are hoisted by the animal as sails; and that in calm weather it sits in its boat-like shell and floats over the smooth surface of the sea, steering and paddling with its other arms; and that, when danger threatens, it lowers its masts, and sinks beneath the waves. This pretty fable was exploded in 1837 by Captain Sander Rang, an officer in the French navy, and Port-captain at Algiers, who carefully followed up some experiments communicated to him by Mrs. Power, a French lady then residing at Messina; and the structure and purpose of the two flattened limbs is now clearly understood. Instead of floating in its pleasure-boat over the sea, the argonaut ordinarily crawls along the bottom, carrying its shell above it, keel uppermost; and the broad extremities of the two arms are not hoisted as sails, nor allowed, when at rest, to dangle over the side of the “boat,” but are used as a kind of hood by which the animal retains the shell in its proper position, as a man bearing a load on his shoulders holds it with his hands. When it comes to the surface, or progresses by swimming instead of walking, it does so in the same manner as the octopus; namely, by the forcible expulsion of water from its funnel-like tube. This “paper-sailor,” then, whom the poets have regarded as endowed with so much grace and beauty, and living in luxurious ease, is but a fine lady octopus after all. Turn her out of her handsome residence, and, instead of the fairy skimmer of the seas, you have before you what Mr. Mantalini would call a “dem’d, damp, moist, unpleasant body,” like that of her weird and sprawling relative.
OCTOPODS I HAVE KNOWN
The first octopus received at the Brighton Aquarium was caught in a lobster-pot at Eastbourne in October 1872, and great was the joy that reigned in “London-by-the-sea.” For in the state of public feeling then existing, an aquarium without an octopus was like a plum pudding without plums. Share-holders might construct a handsome building, and stock its magnificently gigantic tanks with a variety of most interesting fishes, but fashion and public opinion demanded of them a “devil-fish.” The new octopus became “the rage.” Visitors jostled each other, and waited their turn to obtain a peep at him — often a tantalizing exercise of patience, for the picturesque rock-work in the tanks provided so many hiding places, that, until these were partially filled with cement, the popular favorite only occasionally condescended to show himself.
THE DEVIL-FISH OF FICTION AND OF FACT
In Victor Hugo’s famous story, “The Toilers of the Sea,” the octopus’ arms are described as “encircling Gilliatt’s whole body, cutting into his ribs like cord; … forming a ligature about his stomach; … enfolding and constricting his diaphragm like straps; producing such compression that he could hardly breathe; … his body almost disappearing under the folds of this horrible bandage; its knots garotting him, its contact paralysing him.” The suckers are represented as being “like so many lips trying to drink your blood; … they bury themselves to the depth of an inch in the flesh of their prisoner; … on contact with them your muscles swell, the fibres are wrenched, and your blood gushes forth, and mixes horribly with the lymph of the mollusc.”
The whole of this is fallacious. The arms of the octopus are not used as weapons of constriction, compression, or suffocation. They are eight radiating, tapering thongs on each of which are mounted, in a double row, numerous sucking discs, which decrease in size towards the tips of the limbs, and act as so many dry cupping-glasses. The cups themselves, by their internal mechanism for air exhaustion, and consequent pressure of the outer atmosphere, adhere firmly to any substance to which they are applied, whether stone, fish, crustacean, or flesh of man; but in the octopus they have no power to puncture or lacerate the skin, or to cause blood to flow. They are merely pneumatically prehensile organs, by which the animal’s prey is caught and held; not by “harpooning,” as the novelist supposes, but by their atmospheric adhesion to the surface of its body.
When experimenting on the holding force of an octopus I have allowed it to fix its suckers firmly on my arm and the back of my hand, and by pretending to try to pull them away from its grasp have caused it to exert its utmost power of resistance and retention. The only effect of this has been that the vacuum produced an almost indistinguishable circular mark, corresponding with the edge of the larger discs, and not nearly so distinct as would be caused by the application of a glass tube to the skin, and the partial exhaustion of the air in it by drawing it from the other end by the mouth and tongue.
“The ‘pieuvre’ has no muscular organisation, no menacing cry, no breastplate, no horn, no dart, no tail with which to hold or bruise, no cutting fins, or wings with claws, no prickles, no sword, no electric discharge, no venom, no talons, no beak, no teeth… It has no bones, no blood, no flesh. It is soft and flabby. It is an empty flask; a skin with nothing inside it. Its eight tentacles may be turned inside out, like the hands of a glove. It has a single orifice, which is both vent and mouth.”
So says the novelist. The naturalist knows that it has a complete and perfect muscular organisation; muscles which serve to retract and depress the funnel, bundles of strong muscles passing along the arms and branching to each of the suckers which gives to the animal its power of adhesion, and a mass of muscles of such strength to work the powerful beak, that if anyone, believing the fictionist, were to place his finger in the small circular orifice in the centre of the base of the arms, he would possibly learn practically that it is not “an empty flask with nothing in it.” For just within the oral cavity lie, retracted and hidden, but ready for use when wanted, a pair of horny mandibles which bite vertically, like the beak of a parrot or turtle, except that the lower mandible is the longest and overlaps the upper, and are so hard that they can not only tear the softer animals the octopus is able to catch, but also break up the shells of lobsters, crabs, and mussels, which are its usual food.
The common cuttle-fish (Sepia officinalis), (often called by sailors the “scuttle”), though flabby and clammy in death, is a lovely object when alive. Unlike, the skulking, hiding octopus, but equally rapacious, it loves the day-light and the freedom of the open sea. Its predatory acts are not those of a concealed and ambushed brigand lying in wait behind a rock, or peeping furtively from within the gloomy shadow of a cave; but it may better be compared to the war-like Comanche vidette, seated motionless on his horse, and scanning from some elevated knoll a wide expanse of prairie, in readiness to swoop upon a weak or unarmed foe. Poised near the surface of the water, like a hawk in the air, the sepia moves gently to and fro in its tank by graceful undulations of its lateral fins, —an exquisite play of colour occationally taking place over its beautifully barred and mottled back. When thus tranquil, its eight pedal arms are usually brought close together, and droop in front of its head, like the trunk of an elephant, shortened; its two longer tentacular arms being coiled up within the others, and unseen. Only when some small fish is given to it, as food, is its facility of rapid motion displayed. Then, quickly as a kingfisher darts upon a minnow, it pounces on its prey, enfolds it in its fatal “cuddle” or embrace, and retires to a recess of its abode to tear it piece-meal with its horny beak, and rend it into minutest shreds with its jagged tongue. In shallow water, however, it will often rest for hours on the bottom, after a hearty meal, looking very much like a sleepy tortoise. The cuttlefishes are so voracious that fisherman regard them as unwelcome visitors. Some localities on our own coasts are occasionally so infested by them that the drift-netting has to be abandoned, in consequence of their devouring the fish, or rendering them unsalable by tearing them with their beaks as they hang in the meshes.
Specimens of another of the Sepiidae, the diminutive Sepiola (S. Rondeletii) — a veritable Liliputian among cuttles — are sometimes caught in shrimp-nets, and brought to the Aquarium. The mantle-sac enclosing the body of this little Tom Thumb cephalopod is about an inch in length, and in shape like a short widebore mortar. The large goggle eyes seem to be out of all proportion to the size of their owner; but they are, apparently, “all the better to see with,” either to watch for a tender young shrimp coming within arms reach, or to perceive an approaching enemy. Now and again specimens of the “little squid” (Loligo media) are brought in. Their movements are very graceful and pleasing. They are gregarious, like other squids, and keep close together. By the action of their tail-fins, they can either “go a-head” or “turn astern;” and it is very interesting to watch their manoeuvres. We once had in one of the tanks four of these “little squids” (which are only about four inches long), and I was much amused by seeing them perform, in a most ludicrous manner, the quadrille figure called La Trenise. Three of them ranged themselves side by side, and advanced towards, and retired from a solitary one, who, for some reason, was not received into their rank, but faced them. When they withdrew, stern first, to the back of the tank, the lonely one followed them up with a pas seul.
These “little squids” are impudently voracious. I have seen one in single combat with a young dog-fish about four inches long. At first I thought the fish was the aggressor, and had seized one of the tentacular arms of the little Loligo as a good substitute for a worm; but it was soon apparent that the affray had been provoked by the carnivorous cephalopod, and that the puppy-fish would get the worst of it ; —so they were separated.
The largest English calamary I have seen, though larger specimens have been cast ashore on the west coast of Ireland, is one which my friend Dr. Bowerbank kindly sent to me, of a species comparatively rarely found in British home-waters, —Ommastrephes sagittatus. Its dimensions were as follows:—
Length from front of head to point of tail, 21 1/2 inches.
Length of each tentacular arm, 28 inches.
Circumference of body, 14 inches.
It was taken in the mackerel nets, and brought into Hastings by one of the fishing boats on the 26th of September, 1873. Unfortunately it had been much bruised and knocked about by its captors. On endeavouring to extract the internal horny shell, gladius, or “pen” which Mr. Gwyn Jeffreys well describes as resembling a very long oar with a broad handle, I found that it had been smashed and broken across into many pieces. Fisherman often handle very roughly animals taken in their nets which have no value as marketable food, and this splendid squid had probably been dashed down on the deck of the boat with great violence. A pretence of some pains having been taken to keep it alive was, I am told, afterwards made.
The spawn of the squid (Loligo vulgaris) consists of dozens of semi-transparent, gelatinous, slender, cylindrical sheaths, about four or five inches long, each containing many ova embedded in it, and all springing from on common centre, and resembling a mop without a handle. I have never seen these “sea-mops” attached to anything, and the pelagic habits of the calamaries render it probable that they are left floating on the surface of the sea.