Spineless Behaviour

You know, biology journalism isn’t what it once was. Here’s a newspaper report in the Illustrated London News, December 2, 1871 (pages 535-6). This was meant for a general audience….


The aquarium at the Crystal Palace now contains, with many other interesting objects, several specimens of the poulpe, or eight-armed cuttle, Octopus vulgaris, obtained from the sea on the Devonshire and North Wales coasts. This is the animal which has been made famous under the names of devil-fish or man-sucker, by the sensational descriptions of it in Victor Hugo’s Guernsey romance “Toilers of the Sea”, and in other works of imaginative writers. But as Mr. W.A. Lloyd, the superintendent of the aquarium, remarks in his protest against such exaggerations, “it is but wanton ignorance and vulgarity to call the octopus a ‘devil-fish,’ when it has about it nothing diabolical or fishlike. It is simply a mollusc, very high up in the scale of the mollusca, with its viscera and other internal organs contained in an egglike sac, which is surmounted by a pair of prominent and sometimes staring eyes placed on protuberances; and below, set on obliquely, is a series of eight stout, raditating, tapering arms, provided in all with about 2000 round projecting suckers, on the lower surfaces of the arms. Such a creature is in itself wonderful without being invested with fictitious attributes.” It is a fact, however, says Mr. Lloyd, that these cuttles will, if alarmed, catch hold of a man within their reach in the water, though they cannot grasp him out of the water. “The specimens here under my care will, if I permit them, as I have done, firmly affix themselves to my submerged bare hand and arm by the crowds of sucking discs beneath each of their long flexible legs, arms, or tentacles, and then they will draw themselves on till they get to a convenient position, and give a severe bite with their hard, horny pair of beaks or mandibles (not unlike those of a parrot), which are placed below, in the centre of the body, at the point whence the legs or arms radiate; but they soon leave go and drop off when I raise them above the water’s surface. There are no cuttles in Sark, where Victor Hugo places his narrative, or elsewhere in Britain, so large that even a child could not easily kill or disable one of them at one grasp or kick. On the other hand, if an enormous angry cuttle in the tropics, with arms measuring, as they sometimes do, from five to fifteen feet long, provided with thousands of suckers, each nearly an inch in diameter, and additionally provided, as many foreign species are, with a strong and sharp hook in the centre of each, in order to take a firmer hold, armed also with a terribly crushing pair of beaklike jaws – should such a creature encounter a swimming man it would go hard with the man, without any spitefulness on the part of the cuttle.”

It seems probable, on the whole, that the common dread of these creatures, among the seafaring people of the Channel shores, and in the south of Europe, is founded upon some instances of persons being drowned, or put in danger of drowning, by entanglement with their long pliant arms. The eyes are blank and expressionless, and are furnished each with a pair of greyish lids, one closing downwards from above and the others upwards from below, till they meet at the centre of the pupil. “At night, or in much shade,” says Mr. Lloyd, “the eye is wholly uncovered, but in light the lids are seperated according to the amount of illumination. If it be considerable, the seperation is such as only to leave a very narrow horizontal slit for the creature’s vision; but if very strong, their edges are brought into complete contact. These motions of the lids have not the instantaneous character of the lid of the human eye, but are slow enough to be seen. The manner in which the eyelids of the octopus constantly vary in distance from each other when the creature moves about, and thus varies the amount of the shade through which it passes, is most interesting to witness. For instance, as it begins to enter the shadow of an overhanging rock in the Crystal Palace aquarium, the lids gradually seperate and expose the eye beneath them, and they as gradually close again as the animal emerges into light.”

There’s even a nice engraving with it.

Meanwhile, here’s a modern report on an octopus exhibit in Birmingham (BBC News, 2 January 2007). After a long description of the mirror maze leading to it, all we get on octopi is:

Reward for negotiating the maze will be arrival in Poseidon’s Chamber and chance to admire the resident Pacific giant octopus, the world’s largest octopus with an intellect to match.

“These sea creatures are so intelligent marine experts often devise puzzles to help keep them stimulated,” said curator Graham Burrows.

“It will be very fitting that our visitors have to solve a puzzle themselves in order to see it.”

It’s just not the same, is it? And there’s only one image of an octopus, rather poorly presented: No improvement there, either. Even if the first article called the octopus a cuttle fish (a rather odd Victorianism, that), I can’t help but appreciate the depth of coverage, and strong public outreach within those somewhat dense Victorian sentences. Why is it so rare nowadays that we just let a knowledgable person speak on a subject they’re passionate about in the newspapers?

3 replies on “Spineless Behaviour”

  1. Come on, if they printed long, erudite articles in the newspapers nowadays they wouldn’t have room for the latest bit of gossip about Paris Hilton.

  2. Circus of the Spineless #18

    The last time I hosted the Circus of the Spineless, I just did a series of photos—invertebrates are wonderfully photogenic. Here we go again, with another collection of gorgeous images of crunchy, squishy, slimy, tentacled, multi-legged, no-legg…

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