In Part 2 of our exclusive interview with documentary filmmaker Anna Fitch, Dr. David Scheel, his daughter Laurel Scheel, they talk more the PBS: NATURE film “Octopus: Making Contact,” airing Wednesday, October 2. The discussion includes both the octopus Heidi, who spent a year in a huge tank in the Scheels’ living room, and octopuses in general.
AX: Regarding the life span of an octopus, there was another documentary where the implication was that octopus mortality in the wild is that something happens to physically exhaust them – in the case of females, it’s often giving birth – and that makes them susceptible to predation. On the other hand, some animals do better in the wild than they do in captivity. So does anybody know if captivity extends octopus life spans because they’re not subject to predation, or if they would do better in the wild except for predation? Or is this something you can know?
DAVID SCHEEL: Octopuses are really hard to keep in captivity. It is a big challenge, and even people like Bret Grasse, who is doing this for dozens of species, will say, “This is just the nature of the business. It’s extremely challenging.” So on average, because of those challenges, octopuses are probably not better in captivity than in the wild. The wild is dangerous, there’s no doubt about it. And most octopuses in the wild die, as plankton[-sized young] or small animals, by predation, or they get into a habitat where the water quality is not right for them, it’s too warm, it’s too cold, whatever. And then, once they make it to the bottom, and they become the little octopuses that we’re used to thinking about and start growing up, they still face a fearsome array of predators and problems. And so those are the things that take out most octopuses in the wild. So it’s a tough life as an octopus. The ones who are successful have a huge number of babies that go out into the plankton.
AX: In OCTOPUS: MAKING CONTACT, you say that octopuses are much more intelligent than squid or cuttlefish, although there are different types of squid. The really large squid seem to be solitary, and live at depths that may make it hard to study them for any length of time. So is it possible that the larger, more solitary squid are smarter, and just nobody’s found conditions to test their intelligence?
DAVID SCHEEL: When you get to that level of comparison, you really have to ask yourself, “What are we interested in?” One of the things I say in the film is that octopuses make trial and error do way more than we should expect. And so that’s a way of saying, there’s flexibility, there’s willingness to try something, and then come back and tackle the problem again, and tackle the problem again. These are the things that make us people think that octopuses are particularly intelligent. If you want to look at how a squid or a cuttlefish approaches those problems, you really have to pick your animal, because there are a lot of different lifestyles. When we talk about an octopus in this context, we’re really talking about the shallow coastal water octopus. Many of those species live somewhat similar lives and lifestyles. They’re benthic animals, they generally live alone, they forage amongst complex environments like coral reefs, or rocky reefs, or kelp forests, for two types of prey, bivalves and crustaceans. And they make a little den, and they keep an eye out for predators. It’s a very similar sort of lifestyle. But when we talk about a squid, until we define the context, there is a huge range of squid. There are deep sea squid that are basically sit and wait predators. Others are these active-pursuit predators, like the stuff that has recently been shown with the giant squid that comes into this jellyfish lure, and it’s obviously attacking the lure fairly vigorously. It’s amazing as a solitary animal. So how do you define intelligence in that way? It’s obviously a searching, seeking predator. But we don’t know what kinds of interactions it gets involved in. And so it’s hard to say how we’d define its intelligence. But all active animals are intelligent in their own context, because otherwise, they wouldn’t make it.
AX: So octopuses are animals that are easier to get into situations where you can study them and give them tests?
DAVID SCHEEL: They’re more amenable, and I think their intelligence is more similar to the kinds of things that humans think is intelligent.
AX: Did Heidi ever want to get out of the tank? Did she ever attempt to climb over you to just get out?
LAUREL SCHEEL: No. She would try and climb to get a better grip on you, to pull you into the tank. That was definitely something that she did a lot, and she would even grab onto me, and if my arm was deep enough in the water, she would try and swim off my arm still attached to her. So it was more of bringing us into the environment of her home, rather than trying to get out.
DAVID SCHEEL: Yeah. From Heidi’s point of view, we should join her, not the other way around.
AX: Heidi seemed to like you. Apart from when they’re mating or trying to eat, is there any other species that octopuses ever have a relationship with or a liking for?
DAVID SCHEEL: Well, I keep octopuses in the lab at school as well, and I have students who help me take care of them. And the students are absolutely convinced that a given octopus likes this person and dislikes that person. So they apparently have quite clear preferences. In the wild, there isn’t any good information, but you see things like that YouTube clip with the person who’s out there trying to make friends with an octopus, and there’s this one time when we were diving in Octopolis [a bay inhabited by a group of octopuses], off the side of Australia, and there’s one den there that the octopuses haven’t built themselves. We were looking in the den, and there was an octopus in there, and then there was a line of these three, I think they were a type of bearded cod, which is a bottom-dwelling fish that lives in amongst the rocks. And the octopus was just sitting there like this [gestures as if his arms are tentacles resting on fish] with the cod. It’s not doing that thing that you see in the video of punching the fish away. Peter Godfrey-Smith, my colleague there, asked me, “What do you think is going on? Is she just tired of scooting these guys out of the den and doesn’t want to take the trouble to get rid of them?” And I said, “Well, octopuses like to hold onto things. They’re very tactile, and it might be that it’s comforting to have them there.” Peter wrote a little bit about that in one of his blogs, I think, just threw the idea out there. So no one knows. No one knows. But the octopus, if you try to keep fish with an octopus in general, sooner or later, whether the octopus seems to be friends with those fish or not, you’re going to wake up in the morning with one less fish. But nevertheless, just because they have a different relationship to their “pets” [than humans do], it doesn’t mean they aren’t comforted by them at some time or another.
AX: You say in the documentary that the day octopus, Heidi’s species, is a more interesting octopus for you to have in your home than the giant Pacific octopus. Why is that?
DAVID SCHEEL: If I was going to keep an octopus in my home, I wanted to expose myself to another species. I’ve spent most of my career working on a single species of octopus, so I wanted to keep something that I hadn’t had a lot of time with. So that was my criteria, and this species, the octopus cyanea [also known as the big blue octopus], had a lot going for it in terms of that. It’s not as cold-water an animal, so there’s a little less equipment that you need, and a little more bulletproof to equipment failures. It’s about the right size for making a film. It’s active during the day, which is conducive to me getting enough sleep to function in my job. And I hadn’t worked with it very much before – a little bit in the lab, but not very much. So it was a good choice for those reasons.
AX: Is it known how many species, or subspecies, of octopuses there are?
DAVID SCHEEL: Shallow-water, coastal octopuses – over three hundred and growing, as we learn more about the ocean and more about octopuses. The deep-water octopuses are somewhat less diverse, but I don’t know how many species off the top of my head.
AX: Are deep-water octopuses harder to keep in a tank, because it’s hard to recreate the deep water pressure?
DAVID SCHEEL: They’re harder to obtain, and the conditions to keep them are less well-known. James Wood has kept a deep-water species, and a few other people have kept them, but you want to have a good reason to give it a try.
AX: Is it known whether octopuses tend to be diurnal or nocturnal, or is there sort of a range, where some of them are both?
DAVID SCHEEL: There’s a range. You see some that are more commonly nocturnal, some that don’t have a strong diurnal pattern, some that are day-active, some that are crepuscular, and come out at dawn and dusk. For most species, it’s never been studied. It’s just anecdotal.
AX: You’ve explained that the octopus’s esophagus is in its brain. What does that do to or for the octopus?
DAVID SCHEEL: It’s an accident of evolution. So ancestral anatomy of mollusks [including octopuses] is that there’s a ring of ganglia that is the central processing, right? Then there are two major cords, I think, that go down the body length, and that ring of ganglia near the front. Mollusks are a downward-facing animal that grazes on the bottom. So you’ve got a ring of ganglia that forms the brain, whatever it is, and then you’ve got a mouth down here, and a stomach back here. And so the esophagus comes up through the ring, and goes to the stomach. Now, over evolutionary time, that ring gets bigger and bigger, and there’s more and more recruitment of ganglia, until it forms a brain, with the esophagus still in the center of it. And so their esophagus runs through their brain, and it’s worth mentioning, because it sounds weird, and it emphasizes the fact that they are not built on the same plan as the vertebrates are.
Everything from fish on through humans, all the birds, all the reptiles, all the amphibians, the basic body plan is very similar. You may not think you’re much like a bird, but you’ve got four limbs, you’ve got a brain on top of your head, and your mouth is here. There are a lot of things that are similar between mammals and birds. And there are a lot of things that are similar between birds and dinosaurs, birds and reptiles, and birds and amphibians. And even fish and humans have a lot of similarities. And so none of those animals have their esophagus running through their brains. But octopuses do. They’re that different. There’s no way to redesign it. At some point [in octopus evolution], it was the logical way to lay out the nerves and the digestive tract. It was efficient. And after that, it’s sort of built in.
AX: Is there any other kind of animal you would want to keep in your home to study it?
DAVID SCHEEL: I didn’t keep the octopus in my house to study it, I kept the octopus in my house to play, I think. But it was a particular notion of play that maybe was informed by being a scientist. I love animals, but I’m allergic to a lot of them, so I probably am happier without too many animals in my house, just for health reasons. I’d be happy to do it again with another species of octopus. It would be fascinating to see the differences.
AX: And is there anything else that you would like to do this kind of year-long filming on?
ANNA FITCH: Well, this really interesting, to see something change over the course of a year. It’s really nice to have that kind of time to reflect, and patience. So yeah, I’d love to spend five years making a film about a relationship with a human and an animal. I think the more time you allow something like this, the deeper you can dive into it, and the more curious you can be. So whoever is up for it … [laughs]
AX: You’ve said you want to go into animation. Is there anything you learned from Heidi that would be helpful with that, in terms of her movement and her coloration?
LAUREL SCHEEL: Well, I would probably be better understanding of how octopuses move. Because I know they’re very difficult to animate, because animating their limbs is like animating eight different animals, plus one for the central part. But definitely fluidity in movement was something that was very easy to see with octopuses. So that’s something that would probably help.
DAVID SCHEEL: I was just thinking that you maybe also will find that your intuitions about how to nonverbally express emotions and things like that through color changes, body postures and things will be, let’s say, more diverse than if you’d only spent time with dogs, cats, and people.
LAUREL SCHEEL: Right.
DAVID SCHEEL: You’ve got that experience of this totally different way of expressing those things built into your intuition.
AX: What are you all working on now?
ANNA FITCH: I’m doing a film called HEAVEN THROUGH THE BACK DOOR, about the story of this amazing woman’s life that she told before she passed away at age eighty-eight.
DAVID SCHEEL: I’m doing octopus research still, in several different ways. I’m continuing at Octopolis, I have some work going on in Alaska, and then I’m also interested in exploring some of these questions about octopus cognition and octopus sensory modalities, and how they function in the world, how they conceptualize their world.
LAUREL SCHEEL: I’m applying for colleges.
DAVID SCHEEL: First year will be at Alaska Pacific.
AX: And what would you all most like people to know about “Octopus: Making Contact”?
DAVID SCHEEL: I think for most people, watching the film will introduce them to something that at first seems very foreign, but in reality ought to be very familiar, the commonness in relating to the rest of the world, a universality of life.
LAUREL SCHEEL: It’s a unique chance to get intimate with an octopus.
ANNA FITCH: It’s a way to see something foreign in a different light.
This interview was conducted during PBS’s portion of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
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