While other books on the octopus study the behavior of the animal in aquaria or tropical waters around the world, Dr. David Scheel, a professor of Marine Biology at Alaska Pacific University, took a unique approach in his first book, Many Things Under the Rock. He traveled to the extremes of the Pacific Northwest where one would not expect these creatures to live, but they are about 330 million years old.
“I think it’s a bit of a surprise to some people that octopuses live in cold water,” Scheel told Ars. “Maybe 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.”
on Many Things Under the 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 of marine biology. Among these chapters are Native stories about octopuses in the Pacific Northwest, which reveal their influence on the native tribes of the area.
While Scheel’s research focuses on how octopuses survive freezing temperatures, the findings in his new book become even more important in the wake of ocean warming. “As the planet warms from climate change, we face some challenges in how the octopus grows and the environments it faces,” Scheel said. “When cold water is at the surface of the ocean, it usually means that the ocean is well mixed, which means that there is a lot of low water near the surface because everything can return. So, you get more nutrients. In early spring, for example, when the sunlight comes back, and you have nutrients in the water, you get these big prolific plankton blooms.” These fertile flowers help expand the amount of prey the octopuses can eat in the region, which in turn allows the octopuses to grow.
But, as described in the book, the Arctic ocean is warming, and Scheel noticed the opposite effects: fewer flowers and, thus, smaller octopuses. “Also, other animals are hungry too,” Scheel said. “So, there are more predators. If you combine those two conditions of long-term growth, so the octopus stays small for a long time, and more predators eat small things, then you run into a time where it is very difficult for an octopus.
Scheel and his research team are trying to determine how much warmer oceans will affect the life cycle of octopuses in the Pacific Northwest. In his book, Scheel examines other impacts that climate change may have on the future of octopuses and what humans can do to help.
By combining descriptive narration and clear facts, Scheel’s book shows the mysteries of octopus behavior, which he and other researchers are trying to decipher. Although there are 300 species of octopuses, as Scheel explains in his work, very little has been studied due to their elusive nature and almost uncanny ability to hide in plain sight. Many Things Under the 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 arms of culture
Having studied octopuses for more than 25 years, Scheel shows how his research goes beyond marine biology, as he also considers the influences of octopuses on the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest. As Scheel wrote: “The humanistic science seeks not only to understand but also to respect people and the natural world.” By relating excerpts from Native Alaskan stories, Scheel reveals how people have adopted octopuses into their histories and even ancestry.
As Scheel explained in our interview, “When I started octopus research, I was working with Native Alaskan communities, which were part of the story. It just didn’t seem right to leave it.” on Many Things Under the Rock, Scheel emphasizes that the octopus is viewed as a “symbol of knowledge in some indigenous cultures.” He told Ars that it’s an apt metaphor: “You can see that in the way the arms reach all over and explore every nook and cranny, in the way that octopuses are amazing animals.”
Throughout his book, Scheel contrasts indigenous stories with hands-on science. “I get a lot of joy from the resonance between the different perspectives that you see in Alaska Native culture, or First Nations culture in Canada, Hawaiian culture, and trying to do science with octopuses,” he told Ars. “I found it interesting to find similarities between how octopuses are described in legends and how they are described in science. This book talks about the giant octopuses that destroyed the native villages of some of the cultural heritage of the Alaskan Natives. Then these giant octopuses, or maybe not, wash up on the beach [in other places] and reported in scientific journals.”
Scheel’s in-depth research and relationship with these natives shown in his book portrays a strong passion for cephalopods that readers will no doubt enjoy. Many Things Under the Rock speaks to avid octopus fans and a wider audience interested in the intersections between science, history, and folklore.
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is the 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 primary focus in writing is quantum physics, quantum technology, deep technology, social media, and the diversity of people in these fields, especially women and people from minority ethnic and racial groups. Follow him on LinkedIn or visit his website.