A modern bestiary

May 3, 2013 • 9:51 am

by Greg Mayer

Last month the University of Chicago Press published The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson. I’ve not seen the book yet, but it seems to be a natural history of a diverse set of odd and interesting animals, in the style of a classic or medieval bestiary, and The New York Review of Books has published a chapter excerpt, the one on the octopus.

Greater blue ring octopus, Indonesia, from NYRB.
Greater blue ring octopus, Indonesia, from NYRB.

A taste of the excerpt:

In Victor Hugo’s 1866 blockbuster, Toilers of the Sea, the hero is caught in the grip of a giant octopus. The creature is “the very enigma of evil, a viscosity with a will, a boneless, bloodless, fleshless creature with one orifice serving as both mouth and anus, a medusa served by eight snakes, coming as if from a world other than our own.” Hugo seems to have read his Pliny, but he pulls out all the stops in wild exaggeration and extreme anatomical confusion:

It is a pneumatic machine that attacks you. You are dealing with a footed void. Neither claw thrusts nor tooth bites, but an unspeakable scarification. A bite is formidable, but less so than such suction. The claw is nothing compared to the sucker. The claw, that’s the beast that enters your flesh; the sucker, that’s you yourself who enters into the beast. Your muscles swell, your fibers twist, your skin bursts beneath this unworldly force, your blood spurts and frightfully mixes with the mollusk’s lymph. The beast is superimposed upon you by its thousand vile mouths….

Coincidentally, I was just mentioning octopuses to my evolution class the other day, noting that while the eyes of octopuses and vertebrates are not homologous as eyes— the common ancestor of mollusks and vertebrates did not have eyes, nor did the common ancestors of each of the two groups (there are many primitively eyeless mollusks and chordates alive today)– their eyes are developed, in part, from common genes, opsins and crystallins. Their visual systems exhibit what is sometimes called deep homology— the structures of modern forms were not present in the common ancestor, but some of the genes that contributed to the convergent or parallel evolution of the structures were present in distant ancestors.

Octopus are also known for their smarts, their ability to travel overland for short distances, and their strength, as well as their eyes. The following video highlights their strength