In August 2015, the prestigious science journal Nature published an account of the first sequencing of an octopus genome—specifically that of the “two-spot octopus” species. Sequencing an animal’s genome means examining its DNA in a complete manner to learn the details of its genetic “code,” and what they found of the octopus’ code surprised them with its complexity and arrangement. As one of the study’s scientists joked, “It’s the first sequenced genome from something like an alien.”
But fast-forward three years, and a surprisingly large group of scientists—no less than 33, from many different nations, disciplines and respected universities—have turned the joke into a serious scientific claim.
In the journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, these scientists claim that the best explanation for the existence of the octopus is an extraterrestrial one. They suggest one of two possibilities: either that simpler squid-like ancestors received additional, fully functioning genetic material from “extraterrestrial viruses” or else that the creatures themselves arrived as a population of “cryopreserved [frozen] octopus embryos” carried to Earth in icy meteors (“Cause of Cambrian Explosion—Terrestrial or Cosmic?,” August 2018, pp. 11–12).
As foolish as the “alien octopus” hypothesis may seem to most, the more this astonishing and exotic animal is studied, the more wonder it inspires. Let’s spend some time with the fascinating octopus and appreciate how God’s glory is on display in this work of His hands.
A Remarkable Design
The most striking and obviously unique feature of the octopus is its appearance. While different species of octopus vary in many details, they tend to share many characteristics.
One half of the octopus’ body is its bulging mantle, which is a muscular, bulbous area that contains the animal’s organs. The other half is composed of the octopus’ eight, tentacle-like arms, each lined with two rows of suckers. Between these two portions of its body lie the animal’s remarkable eyes, among the most sophisticated of the underwater kingdom and similar to our own in their camera-like structure.
These are the parts of an octopus you would see on an underwater dive, yet actually seeing one at all might be quite a challenge! The octopus possesses one of the most intricate and advanced camouflage systems in the entire natural world. Its skin features tens of thousands of specialized cells called chromatophores. Each chromatophore contains three sacs of color pigment, and each is finely and directly controlled by the octopus’ nervous system, giving the creature an amazingly precise degree of control over the appearance of its skin. An octopus is able to mimic the appearance of sand, coral, rock and even the colors and patterns of other animals. Additional skin structures, called papillae, enable the creature to imitate the very texture of the surrounding area, as well, making the octopus almost indistinguishable from its surroundings.
Compared to the camouflage abilities of this eight-armed wonder, the chameleon is a mere amateur!
These abilities make the octopus a capable and deadly hunter. Enveloping its prey in a net-like fashion with its arms, the aquatic carnivore brings its meal—perhaps a crab or crayfish—to the mouth that lies where the arms come together below its head. Waiting there is one of the few hard parts the soft-bodied creature possesses: its parrot-like beak, which can crack open its prey’s shell, exposing the inner body to its barbed tongue.
And escaping the grip of the octopus would be no small feat. The arms and suckers of the octopus are a wonder of design! Scientists have measured some larger suckers and found that a single sucker is able to lift 35 pounds (16 kilograms). The muscular arms themselves, each of which possesses 200 to 300 of these suckers, are able to pull hundreds of times the animal’s own weight. Every single sucker can be manipulated and controlled individually, and each has the ability to “pinch” closed, just as two human fingers might do. The suckers also serve as sensory organs, detecting subtle chemical signals in the octopus’ surroundings.
And while octopuses tend to rely on their arms to move about the ocean floor with ease, they are also able to flee quickly from predators, like an underwater jet! Collecting water in their mantle, they have the ability to force that water through a tube-like funnel, propelling themselves at speeds up to 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers per hour). As an octopus does so, it can expel ink—both in small bursts to create distracting “decoys” or in one large burst, creating a dark cloud in the water. In addition to obscuring the vision of a potential predator, the ink also contains chemicals that confuse its senses of smell and taste and irritate its eyes.
All of these features make the octopus one of the most formidable creatures of the sea. Yet, when we dive beneath the surface of its mere appearance, we find additional remarkable features.
Highly Intelligent and Complex
While humans enjoy the benefit of one heart, octopuses possess three. Two are responsible for moving blood through the gills, while the central heart pumps blood to its organs. And if three hearts weren’t enough, the octopus has essentially nine nervous system centers!
In proportion to its body size, the octopus has one of the largest brains of the underwater world. However, 60 to 70 percent of the octopus’ neurons are not in its brain but are distributed amongst its arms! The brain itself is the center of executive functions and is involved in overall coordination, decision-making, memory and learning. However, because each of the eight arms can also act independently, the octopus is able to “delegate” solving a problem to one or more of its arms—say, opening a resistant clam—while it focuses its brain on other matters entirely, such as finding additional prey or looking for predators.
The organized and complex nervous system of the octopus makes it a remarkably intelligent creature. Octopuses have been observed playing with objects and seem to find a sort of satisfaction in solving puzzles and taking things apart, including child-proof pill bottles. They are capable of solving mazes and remembering solutions to apply later. Placed in a jar with the lid screwed shut, they are cable of unscrewing the lid from the inside to let themselves out. They have even been seen using simple tools. One species of octopus—the blanket octopus—has been observed collecting the stinging tentacles of Portuguese man-o-wars and using them like weapons!
A Creation, Not an Alien
Are octopuses aliens to our planet? Certainly not. Many have noted that, as singular as octopuses may seem, they share the basics of their genetic chemistry and broad biological themes with the rest of life on earth. However “otherworldly” it may appear, the octopus is clearly a creature of our world, and not another.
Perhaps some of the scientists who authored the “alien octopus” paper will one day be inspired to rethink their hypothesis and consider a far more inspiring explanation. Rather than put off the design of the octopus to some hypothetical, faraway world, we should recognize that life has a Designer of vast intelligence—a Creator who seems to find great joy in filling His creation with diversity and variety. Let’s hope that these scientists come to see that the octopus and its collection of startling abilities and characteristics is a living tribute to the ingenuity and genius of that Designer and Creator—the God to whom their own lives bear witness, as well.