Monday, May 25, 2015

The Mightiest Mollusk The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of the Mollusk by Sy Montgomery

With their superhuman strength, seemingly magical skin, and eerie intelligence, octopuses have inspired artists, storytellers, and even religious leaders from coastal cultures around the world.

Octopuses are infinitely intriguing because, let's face it, they are just so amazingly weird!

They are mollusks, but they have no shells. They have eight arms, two of which have their own brains and hearts. and all of which can regrow themselves. They walk on their arms, zoom through the water jet propelled by water-pressure jets. and their sense of taste is located in their suckers. They have only one "tooth," a beak powerful enough to crack a crack a crab or amputate a limb.

Shape-shifters who can squeeze through tiny openings, their blood runs blue and their skin can transform from an shapeless mass of pimply, putty-colored papillae to an iridescent, shimmering mass of glowing blue or orange, a total stop-light red meant to give predators pause, or perfectly mottled camouflage matched to any background--all in the blink of an eye. They are smart enough to recognize familiar human faces for years and remember whether they were gentle or threatening, and neat enough after eating to arrange their empty crab shells and legs in neat stacks like china plates and silverware after a dinner party.

Surely a creature with a claim to being the most alien of the animal kingdom is well deserving of scientific study in Sy Montgomery's forthcoming tomorrow, The Octopus Scientists (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).  In this title author Cy Montgomery has the enviable assignment of shadowing a team of ocean biology scientists on the tropical island of Moorea in French Polynesia, where most of the diving is in shallow water and requires only a snorkel and mask and the main hazards are knees skinned on shallow coral while scanning for the octopus dens.

No octopuses are taken as specimens; only their neatly piled "middens," are collected to document their diets. Researchers do administer personality tests to their subject to measure how bold or shy the cephalopods may be.  Octopus psychologists may recognize some similarities to human patients: shy ones cringe and withdraw when poked, while bold ones grab the pencil and try to pull it out of the researcher's hand. Really annoyed octopuses shoot a blob from their sand funnels at the investigator, and desperate ones depart in a cloud of black ink.

Replete with gorgeous underwater photos of multicolored tropical fish and corals, giant clams and crabs, buff-colored sea cucumbers and black-tipped (non-man-eating) sharks, swim-finned students, and teasing glimpses of tropical shores, this book follows the disappointments and discoveries, the discipline of taking endless notes underwater and the discomforts of crawling over dead coral and swimming through algae with the texture of Brillo pads, but especially the joys of adding to the knowledge of this little known but wondrous animal. As always in Houghton Mifflin's notable Scientists in the Field, series, a bibliography and detailed index add to the usefulness of this entry. "Science in the field at its best," says Kirkus Reviews.

For even more psychological octopus oddities, pair this one with Sy Montgomery's just published The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness.

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