Published: June 15, 2017

Cephalopods to Wrap Your Head Around

Janet Voight, Women's Board Associate Curator of Invertebrate Zoology, Negaunee Integrative Research Ctr


Illustration of large orange octopus; illustration from different angles of a pink speckled octopus

What do you think of when you hear “octopus”? A distinct form of animal life, uniquely different from all the others but also just so uncannily familiar? Just maybe, they are the second smartest animal life on the planet after humans?

To a zoologist, they are members of the class Cephalopoda in the phylum Mollusca. This means they don’t have a backbone, not even a skeleton, properly speaking; the closest relatives of cephalopods might be snails or clams! But they separated from those animals a long time ago—the first fossil we recognize as a cephalopod was alive some 520 million years ago, so probably even before then. Cephalopods followed their own unique evolutionary path to become smart, mobile predators in today’s oceans.  

What makes cephalopods mollusks? There are three key features: their anatomy, with three hearts that pump blue, copper-rich blood through their vessels; their DNA, which links to their shelled relatives; and a thin layer of mucus-y slime that covers their epidermis. Some anatomical features seem really odd to us chordates, but they are just part of being a mollusk. For one, the cephalopod esophagus (the muscular tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach) goes through the brain. Not exactly ideal if you eat anything that might have sharp things in it—there is a scientific report of a dead octopus having had its brain speared by a spine in its esophagus. Shudder.   

Although in school they tell you that all animals have a skeleton, either inside or outside, cephalopods don’t have a fixed skeleton. Rather, they make their own skeleton as needed, just like your tongue works without a skeleton (it would be really hard to talk if you had bones in your tongue, wouldn’t it?). Your tongue and cephalopod bodies work the same way: their muscles make an ever-changing skeleton that moves in more ways than it could if it had a traditional skeleton.  

Octopuses move around by walking on their eight arms, mostly—some octopuses spend their lives swimming, but most of them walk. Their cousins the squids rule the waves as well as the deeper ocean that generally lacks waves. Squids swim their whole lives, and their entire bodies are streamlined, with a fin at one end and their eight arms and tentacles at the other. Those tentacles can shoot out a surprising distance from the animal, hitting unsuspecting prey like a fish with a powerful force. The poor fish is stunned senseless, so the squid grabs it and draws it into its sucker-covered arms from which there is no escape. Then, the squid preferentially bites into the base of the fish’s skull, paralyzing it so it can’t even put up a fight. Most octopuses use poison to do the same thing (render the poor prey senseless, that is). 

That hardly sounds fair, does it? But cephalopods make their living by killing and eating other animals. When they were little, other animals like fishes, shrimps, and even other octopuses, would do their best to kill and eat them, so turnabout is fair play. As every animal in the ocean loves to eat cephalopods, it is a great reason for them to grow big, and quickly, which they do.