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 these creatures might not be expected to live, but they have 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 could be because we’re used to seeing them in aquariums and we think of aquariums as tropical places, although you can also run cold water aquariums.”
IN Many things under a rock, Scheel regales the reader with anecdotes of his time researching cephalopods in Alaska and Canada. From the annual tracking of octopus dens to the discovery of new octopus “cities,” Scheel’s chapters provide engaging and informative stories on marine biology. Among these chapters are indigenous stories about octopuses in the Pacific Northwest, revealing their influence on the native tribes of the area.
While Scheel’s research focuses on how octopuses have survived in freezing temperatures, the findings in his new book have become especially important as the oceans warm. “As the planet warms from climate change, we face some challenges in terms of how the octopus can grow and the environments it faces,” Scheel said. “When cold waters are at the surface of the ocean, it usually means that the oceans are well mixed, which means there’s a lot of water at the bottom near the surface, because everything can turn over. So you get a lot of nutrients. In the early spring, for example, when the sunlight comes back and you have nutrients in the water, you get these big productive blooms of plankton.” These productive blooms help expand the amount of prey for the octopuses in the region to feed on, which in turn allows the octopuses to grow larger.
However, as the book describes, Arctic oceans are warming, and Scheel has noticed the opposite effects: fewer blooms and, thus, smaller octopuses. “Besides, the other animals are hungry too,” Scheel said. “So there are more predators. If you combine these two conditions of prolonged growth, so that the octopus stays small for a longer period, and more predators eating small things, then you have a period where it is very difficult 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. Within his book, Scheel delves into other effects that climate change may have on the future of octopuses and what humans can do to help.
Combining descriptive accounts and vivid facts, Scheel’s book reveals the mysteries of octopus behavior that he and other researchers are working to unravel. Although there are 300 species of octopus, as Scheel explains within his work, very few have been studied due to their elusive nature and almost otherworldly ability to hide in plain sight. Many things under one rock summarizes the current findings about these creatures that have captured the collective imagination for centuries and what researchers hope to find in the future.
The many weapons of culture
Having studied octopuses for more than 25 years, Scheel shows how his research goes beyond just marine biology, as he also considers the impacts of octopuses on the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest. As Scheel writes: “Indigenous science seeks not only to understand but also to respect people and the natural world.” By telling snippets of Alaska Native stories, Scheel reveals how people have adopted octopuses into their stories and even genealogies.
As Scheel explained in our interview, “When I started the octopus research, I worked with Alaska Native communities, which was part of the story. It seemed inappropriate to leave it out.” IN Many things under one rock, Scheel points out that the octopus is seen as a “symbol of knowledge in some native cultures.” He told Ars it’s an apt metaphor: “You can see that in the way the arms reach into everything and explore every nook and cranny, the way octopuses are such curious animals.”
Throughout his book, Scheel compares indigenous stories with practical science. “I got a lot of joy from the resonance between different perspectives that you would find in Alaska Native 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 portrayed in legend and how they were portrayed in science. This book is about giant octopuses that destroy native villages in some of the cultural heritage of Alaska Natives. Then these giant octopuses, or maybe not, come ashore [in other places] and reported in scientific journals.”
Scheel’s in-depth research and relationships with these indigenous peoples presented in his book illustrate a strong passion for cephalopods that readers will undoubtedly enjoy. Many things under one rock speaks to avid octopus fans and a wider audience interested in the intersections between science, history and folklore.
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a science communicator at JILA (a joint physics research institute between 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 minority groups. Follow her on LinkedIn or visit her website.