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Death in a Pretty Package: The Blue-Ringed Octopuses

<< Cephalopod Articles | By , University of California at Berkeley

This article originally appeared in: Freshwater and Marine Aquarium Magazine, 23 (3): 8-18 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

My first encounter with a blue-ringed octopus came thirteen years ago. It remains my most frightening experience with these beautiful but deadly animals. As a biologist specializing in the behavior of tropical marine invertebrates, I travel to coral reefs around the Indo-Pacific. Sometimes my children were able to accompany me on these research trips. Such was the case in the summer of 1987 when my teenaged daughter joined me on Lizard Island off the North Queensland coast to study the aggressive behavior of mantis shrimp. One species lives in eroded pieces of coral rubble and shell at a depth of 20 m. The easiest way to collect it was to bring to the surface bags of rubble that were then broken apart. To raise the bags, I enlisted my daughter's help. Using SCUBA, I collected promising looking rubble while she remained on the boat. With a few yanks on the line, I signaled her to pull up the bag, transfer the rubble to plastic bins, and send the bag back down to be refilled (She still complains about being sentenced to a summer of hard labor!). While there were certainly dangerous animals living in the area including textile cones, stone fish, and sea snakes, it was unlikely that any of these creatures would make it to the surface in the rubble I selected. Even if they did, she had grown up around such animals and knew to avoid them. One morning after I surfaced she mentioned that one rock oyster shell "had something soft and squishy inside". I assumed it was a small sea cucumber and dismissed the comment. Sitting on the beach pounding away on the shell and rubble, the "squishy" inhabitant was long forgotten. Then, my hammer cracked open an encrusted honeycomb oyster shell and a tangle of arms covered with small iridescent blue spots spewed from the fissure. Out charged a very irate golf ball sized female octopus holding in her arms a clutch of developing eggs. I remember being taken aback by her aggressive posture. Rather than crawling for cover like most octopus, she reared up while pulling back her first two pair of arms exposing her mouth. It was very clear to me that here was an octopus ready to bite. The blue spots were unmistakable. This was a potentially lethal blue-ringed octopus that my unsuspecting daughter had handled just minutes earlier.

Because of an experience several years earlier in the Andamen Sea, I was well aware of the dangers involved in handling blue-ringed octopuses. The local morgue asked the biological station I was visiting for help identifying the cause of death of a German tourist. He had been found dead on the beach. He hadn't drowned and there were no signs of major trauma. Eventually, a small incision was found on his shoulder. The sharp beak of an octopus produces such a wound. While it was never proven, the most likely scenario was that he found a blue-ringed octopus in a tide pool, picked it up and put it on his shoulder. After it bit him, he was probably dead in minutes.

As I used my mask to scoop up the female blue-ring and gingerly transferred her to a bucket, I couldn't help but think of that German tourist and the very real possibility that my daughter, alone in the boat, could have met the same fate long before we realized that something was wrong and surfaced.

Part II: What makes blue-rings so deadly?

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The Cephalopod Page (TCP), © Copyright 1995-2014, was created and is maintained by Dr. James B. Wood, Associate Director of the Waikiki Aquarium which is part of the University of Hawaii. Please see the FAQs page for cephalopod questions, Marine Invertebrates of Bermuda for information on other invertebrates, and MarineBio.org and the Census of Marine Life for general information on marine biology.