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An Octopus Bite and its Treatment

<< Cephalopod Articles | By Roland C. Anderson

This article originally appeared in The Festivus, 1999, 30(4):45-46 and is reprinted here with permission from the author and The Festivus.

On May 12, 1998, a Seattle Aquarium employee was leading a beach walk at Saltwater State Park (20 miles south of Seattle on Puget Sound, Washington State, USA). Several nearby scuba divers caught a red octopus (Octopus rubescens Berry, 1953) and brought it to shore to give to the Aquarium. The octopus was placed in a bucket to show the class. As the octopus was being handled by the Aquarium employee using a gloved hand, it abruptly swam to the ungloved hand and bit the employee. The bite was located on the back of his hand above the wrist bone of his ring finger. The bite was not noticed at first, as there was no immediate pain from the bite.

About a minute later, the employee noticed blood and confirmed the presence of a small puncture wound at the site of the bite. The small puncture wound (less than 5 mm) was consistent with a bite from the beak of the small octopus (24.5 g, 3.4cm mantle length, corresponding to an arm span of about 10 cm). When he noticed the bite, the employee sucked on the wound to extract the venom, but this is not likely to have done much good, particularly in light of the further symptoms. After about ten minutes, localized pain was noticed at the wound site. When swelling and "fiery" pain began to extend up the back of the hand and wrist to his mid-forearm, the employee called the Aquarium on his cellular phone. Other Aquarium employees suggested immersing the wound in hot water, hot as the employee could stand. A nearby espresso stand (only in Seattle!) supplied the hot water. The lapsed time was about 20 minutes between the bite and the first aid treatment. The employee poured the hot water directly over the wound and the adjacent affected area. The pain and swelling dissipated within a minute. The employee then went to Harborview Hospital in Seattle, the area's main trauma care center. Interestingly, the hospital called the Aquarium to get advice on the treatment. The hospital then applied an ointment for the blisters around the bite caused by the hot water.

The next day the bite could scarcely be seen or felt. There were several residual blisters on the skin from the hot water, which persisted for about a week. Although there was no localized evidence left from the bite, the victim reported headaches and weakness for a week following the bite. In contrast, in the case of an untreated O. rubescens bite on an Aquarium employee 20 years earlier, necrosis at the bite site continued for about a month.

Octopus rubescens is known for its potent bites (Halstead, 1949; Berry and Halstead, 1954; Oglesby, 1972; Anderson, 1987; Halstead, 1988; Hochberg, 1997). The bite of an octopus is produced by its beak-like jaws located in the mouth at the center of the arms. In O. rubescens, as in other octopuses, at the time of the bite, the animals inject a proteolytic enzyme or venom via the salivary proboscis (Ballering, et al., 1972). Although the bite of other cephalopods, such as octopuses in the genus Haplochleana, are known to be fatal (Halstead, 1988), there is relatively little written on the treatment of octopus bites. Hot water is the suggested as immediate first aid treatment for the bites and puncture wounds of octopuses (ibid) and other marine creatures such as lionfish or stonefish (Thomas and Scott, 1997). In the instance recounted above, immediate hot water treatment was effective in neutralizing the localized effects of the bite of O. rubescens. However, as evidenced by the employee's systemic symptoms in the days following the bite, such treatment may not be totally effective. We also don't know if this treatment will prove effective in reducing the trauma from the bites of other octopus species, but it may be a place to start until we learn otherwise.

My thanks go to Ben Brown for sharing his experience with me and to an anonymous reviewer for greatly improving the manuscript.

LITERATURE CITED
ANDERSON, R.C. 1987. Cephalopods at the Seattle Aquarium. International Zoo Yearbook. 26:41-48.
BALLERING, R.G., M.A. JALVING, D.A. VENTRESCA, L.E. HALLACHER, J.T. TOMLINSON and D.R. WOBBER. 1972. Octopus envenomation through a plastic bag via a salivary proboscis. Toxicon. 10:245-248.
BERRY, S.S. & B.W. HALSTEAD. 1954. Octopus bites - a second report. Leaflets in Malacology. 1(11):59-65.
HALSTEAD, B.W. 1949. Octopus bites in human beings. Leaflets in malacology. 1(5):17-22.
HALSTEAD, B.W.1988. Poisonous and venomous marine animals of the world. The Darwin Press (N.J.). 1168 pp.
HOCHBERG, F.G. 1997. Octopus rubescens. Pp. 29-38. In: Lang, M.A. and F.G. Hochberg (eds.). Proceedings of the workshop on the fishery and market potential of octopus in California. Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.). 192 pp.
OGLESBY, L.C.1972. Octopus bites in California. Annual Meeting, Western Society of naturalists. 64:27 (abstract).
THOMAS, C. and S. SCOTT. 1997. All stings considered. University of Hawaii Press (Honolulu). 233 pp.


New Report
Matt Wandell was recently bitten and he wrote the following:

The octopus that bit me on the hand was, as best I can tell, O. rubescens. It is definitely not O. bimaculatus or O. bimaculoides. I'm certainly not an expert at IDing cephalopods, but the Light's manual I have describes the morphology and of the octopus that bit me as a female O. rubescens.

We discovered the octopus on the mudflats of Bodega Harbor at low tide as it moved from the shore to the water line. Rather than trying to pick it up, I let it crawl onto my hands by placing them in its path. My plan was to then dump it into a bucket we had for collecting specimens. Well, some of the folks in the ecology class I was with had never seen an octo in person before, so their understandable first reaction was to poke the thing while it was still in my hands. Big mistake. The bite began as a mild pinch and then became very painful as she broke the skin. We made our way toward shore to drop off our animals and to clean my hand. The whole time my hand was throbbing, and very painful. I'd compare it to getting punched in the hand over and over, and then have a bee sting it. The wound also bled a lot even though I was applying a lot of pressure to it.

Other than washing my hands, I didn't do anything to the bite. I was actually surprised to see how tiny it was—I've had bigger papercuts. It stopped bleeding but leaked a clear substance (which I assumed was lymph) for the next 3 to 4 days. It was, however, very sore for the next week and a half to two weeks in an area about the size of a silver dollar on my hand. At this point my wound had also grown—one of my classmates described it as "the flesh eating octopus". At one point a hole in my hand about the size of a BB pellet had simply eroded away. It seems to be healing nicely as I write this, a full 3 weeks after the bite. The attached picture is a magnification at 8 times of my hand 20 days after the bite.

Moral of the story: Don't let an octopus crawl on you if it's stressed! I've let the exact same octopus crawl over my hands in the lab with no problems at all, but this was after it had become quite tame. They are quite adept at recognizing the difference between a hand that is trying to catch it and a hand that is just checking it out. The one that bit me has three distinct "moods" I've noticed—all tan with smooth skin and extended arms is the "exploratory mood". She will squirt water at you, approach you and wrap around your fingers, and let you pet her between the eyes without trying to escape. This is the only time I let my hands get near her mouth. Red arms with a grey mantle, curled arms and rough, spiky skin is the "shy mood"—she just wants to look and act like a rock. Try to pet her and she will just move to another spot. All bright red with flashing white spots and smooth skin is the "hungry mood". The only times I've seen it are when I feed her.

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