The octopus life is a lonely life. While the eight-limbed sea freaks enjoy more perks than the rest of the animal kingdom, like super-advanced brains that may be capable of conscious thought and the ability to jam themselves into narrow crannies, they mostly drift through life alone in the depths of the sea, emerging from solitude only to mate in desperate one-night stands.
At least, that’s what scientists thought before they discovered Octlantis.
In a Marine and Freshwater Behaviour and Physiology paper published in early September, a team of international scientists reported that they discovered a rocky outcrop in Jervis Bay, off the eastern coast of Australia, where octopuses shed their anti-social reputations and just hang out.
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At the site, which the scientists nicknamed Octlantis, they observed 10 to 15 Octopus tetricus, also known as gloomy octopuses, in “frequent interaction” over the course of eight days. That’s a lot of interaction for supposedly solitary creatures.
Hanging out in Octlantis, a site about 60 feet long and 13 feet wide, strewn with shells from dead prey, involves “signaling, mating, mate defense, eviction of octopuses from dens, and attempts to exclude individuals from the site,” the researchers write. These are all signs of a robust social scene, not unlike a human party: Individuals spar over mates, they change their appearance to intimidate competitors, and couples hook up.
These observations are forcing scientists in the field to reconsider old notions about octopus socialization, which mostly presume that the misunderstood cephalopods are hermits.
That thinking began to change in 2009, when the very first octopus party was observed at a site named Octopolis, less than a mile away from Octlantis. There, independent researcher Matthew Lawrence observed about 16 octopuses living in neighboring dens, which suggested that the animals are capable of being social and forming group settlements when the conditions are right.
The goings-on in Octlantis support that idea, but what exactly makes the shell-covered site an ideal setting for an octopus settlement remains to be seen. What’s even less clear, the scientists write, is what benefit the octopuses get from living in such close quarters when they could have access to a near-infinite amount of watery space and resources. All that aggressive socializing and antagonizing, they point out, can be very energetically costly and raises the risk of injury.
“We still don’t know what the benefits are of this kind of behavior, which is linked closely to living in densely populated settlements, compared to the life of a solitary octopus,” said study co-author and University of Illinois at Chicago Ph.D. student Stephanie Chancellor in a statement.
Other animals that tend to band together — humans included — do so because it’s safer and less energetically costly to survive in a group. You could also argue that it’s more fun, at least for humans, though scientists aren’t sure to what extent the highly evolved brains of octopuses can process those kinds of feelings. Chancellor and her team admit that they “still don’t really know much about octopus behavior,” so we’ll have to wait and see what, if anything, their unexpected get-togethers really mean. At least, now, we’ll know where to find them.
*If you liked this article, check out this video about a robot octopus.