While other octopus books study the animal’s behavior in aquariums or tropical waters around the world, Dr. David Scheel, a professor of marine biology at Alaska Pacific University, takes a unique approach in his first book, Many things under one rock. He travels to extreme places in the Pacific Northwest where you wouldn’t expect these creatures to live, but they’ve lived for about 330 million years.
“I think it’s a little surprising to some people that octopuses live in cold water,” Scheel told Ars. “It may be because we’re used to seeing them in aquariums, and we think of aquariums as tropical locations, although you can also run cold water aquariums.”
In Many things under one rock, Scheel regales the reader with anecdotes from his time researching cephalopods in Alaska and Canada. From tracking octopus burrows annually to discovering new octopus cities, Scheel’s chapters provide engaging and informative stories about marine biology. Between these chapters are native stories about octopuses in the Pacific Northwest, revealing their influence on the native tribes of the area.
As Scheel’s research focuses on how octopuses have survived in freezing temperatures, the findings in his new book have become especially relevant in the wake of warming oceans. “As the planet warms from climate change, we’re running into some challenges related to how the octopus can grow and the environments it faces,” Scheel said. “If there is cold water on the surface of the ocean, it usually means that the oceans are well mixed, which means that there is a lot of bottom water on the surface because everything can turn. So you get a lot of nutrients. In early spring, for example, when the sunlight returns and you have nutrients in the water, you get these big productive plankton blooms.” These prolific flowers help increase the amount of prey for octopuses in the region to feed on, allowing the octopuses to grow larger.
However, as the book describes, the Arctic oceans are warming, and Scheel has noticed the opposite effects: fewer flowers and therefore smaller octopuses. “Moreover, other animals are also hungry,” says Scheel. “So there are more predators. If you combine those two conditions of long-term growth, so the octopus stays small longer, and more predators eat small things, you enter a period where it is very tough for an octopus.”
Scheel and his research team are trying to determine how much a warmer ocean affects the life cycle of an octopus in the Pacific Northwest. In his book, Scheel delves into other effects climate change could have on the future of octopuses and what humans can do to help.
Combining descriptive stories and vivid facts, Scheel’s book reveals the mysteries of octopus behavior that he and other researchers are trying to unravel. While 300 species of octopuses exist, as Scheel explains in his work, very few have been studied because of their elusive nature and almost otherworldly ability to hide in plain sight. Many things under one rock summarizes current findings on these creatures that have captured the collective imagination for centuries and what researchers hope to find in the future.
The many arms of culture
Having studied octopuses for more than 25 years, Scheel shows how his research extends beyond marine biology as he also considers the influences of octopuses in indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest. As Scheel writes, “Indigenous science seeks not only to understand, but also to respect humans and the natural world.” By telling snippets of Alaskan Native stories, Scheel reveals how humans have incorporated octopuses into their histories and even genealogies.
As Scheel explained in our interview, “When I started doing octopus research, I was working with the Alaskan Native communities, which was part of the story. It seemed inappropriate to leave it out.” In Many things under one rockScheel emphasizes that the octopus is seen as a “symbol of knowledge in some indigenous cultures”. He told Ars it’s a fitting metaphor: “You can see it in the way the arms reach everywhere and explore every nook and cranny, in the way octopuses are such inquisitive animals.”
Throughout his book, Scheel compares indigenous stories to hands-on science. “I really enjoyed the resonance between the different perspectives that you would find in Native Alaskan cultures, or First Nations cultures in Canada, Hawaiian cultures, and trying to do science with octopuses,” he told Ars. “I found it intriguing to find parallels between how octopuses were depicted in legends and how they were depicted in science. This book is about the giant octopuses destroying native villages in part of the cultural heritage of the Alaskan Natives. Then these giant octopuses, or maybe not, wash up on the shore [in other places] and reported in scientific journals.”
Scheel’s in-depth research and relationships with these indigenous peoples showcased in his book illustrate a strong passion for cephalopods that readers will no doubt enjoy. Many things under one rock speaks to avid octopus fans and the wider public interested in the intersections between science, history and folklore.
Kenna Hughes Castleberry is the science communicator at JILA (a joint physics research institute of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado Boulder) and a freelance science journalist. Her main writing focuses are quantum physics, quantum technology, deep technology, social media, and the diversity of people in these fields, especially women and people from ethnic and racial minorities. Follow her on LinkedIn or visit her website.