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Wild Thing: Brainy Beast

The wily octopus can not only change its color and texture — it can also escape from tightly sealed boxes.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Even sturdy straps topped with heavy concrete blocks can't get in the way of an octopus. In the early 1980s, Jennifer Mather, then a visiting researcher at the Bermuda Biological Station for Research, recalls how tightly she and her colleagues secured a lidded plastic box containing an Octopus vulgaris.

The next morning, they found the octopus on the lab floor, still alive. "We named him Houdini!" laughs Mather, now a psychology professor at Canada's University of Lethbridge.

Surprise! Octopuses — Hollywood's favorite "monster of the sea" — boast not only strength and dexterity but smarts as well. What's more, these eight-armed invertebrates — kin to brainless clams, oysters and other mollusks — lack a hard shell. So they can easily compress and squeeze through spaces only as wide as their eyes.

In the Gulf of Mexico, an average Octopus vulgaris measures 3 feet wide and weighs 20 pounds. Reclusive and shy, this master of disguise hides in a lair it camouflages with shells, rocks and other debris. Using suckers beneath its muscular arms to feel and taste, an octopus forages the ocean bottom for fish, crabs and other crustaceans. Predator coming? A fast switch in skin color and texture blends the octopus into its surroundings.

Despite their cunning, this species of octopus lives only 12 to 18 months. After mating, males go senile and waste away. In their den, females guard and tend more than 100,000 rice-sized eggs, then die shortly after the young hatch. Only a few survive and mature; most fall prey to crabs and fish.

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