Ask an octopus expert: How did Inky escape?

Inky the octopus, the escapee from New Zealand’s National Aquarium. (Courtesy of the National Aquarium of New Zealand)
Apr 14, 2016

The story of Inky, an octopus who escaped a New Zealand aquarium by climbing out of his tank and taking a drainpipe to the ocean, was one of the Washington Post’s most-read stories on Wednesday. And understandably, Inky’s feat inspired lots of reader questions about octopus anatomy, intelligence and behavior.

Joining us today to provide some answers is Jennifer Mather, a professor of psychology at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. Mather has long studied the behavior of octopuses and squid, and her work has taken her to the waters of Bermuda, Hawaii and Bonaire. She’s also focused on octopuses’ cognitive abilities, assessed their personalities and evaluated their play. Who better than to explain how and why Inky made his great escape?

So let’s get to it. Fire away with questions about all things octopus!

how Inky knew that he (she?) could get to the ocean through the floor? Can an octopus smell the ocean through the air? If I had to guess, I'd say their sense of smell worked mostly through the water, so smelling something outside the tank would be hard, but that is only a guess and not an educated one.

My guess is that he fell to the floor and started feeling around, one of the arms likely touched the water and he went 'aha' and slithered down the drain.


how did the octopus become so intelligent?

Evolutionarily, probably when they gave up the protective shell.  without a place to hide in, they had to get smart or get eliminated.  And it was about the same time as the bony fishes evolved, big competition.

I found a tiny about golf ball jello size octopus living inside a clam shell off the coast of Puerta Penasco, Mexico with tiny eggs inside. Don't they need to be in the ocean? She was beached after tide went out.

Yes, alas probably she and the eggs died.

If an octopus got out of our national zoo, which bar would it hang out at in Adams Morgan?

Thanks to everyone for joining us! While Dr. Mather works on the substantive questions, I'll take this one. 

I must confess it's been a few years since I spent time in Adams Morgan bars. But based purely on their names, I nominate the following as suitable haunts for a renegade octopus: 

1. Rebellion

2. Libertine (but they serve seafood, so maybe not)

3. Shenanigan's 

Do Octopi ever play with other species?

Not that we know, but then we know little about octopus play anyway.

Before the National Zoo closed their Invertebrate exhibit in 2014, I always liked to see the giant Pacific octopus there. Then one day a volunteer explained how intelligent they were. So I asked if they were so intelligent, why are they in such a tiny tank. Silence. Do you have a good answer for this?

Octopuses like places to hide, so most of the time they are quite content to stay in a small space.  Trouble is, sometimes they want to go out exploring like Inky, and then you get the 'escape problem'.

Why was there a 3 month gap between Inky leaving the aquarium & the news being made public? Are the staff involved suffering as a result? Are experts thinking he made it to the Pacific ok? Was he healed sufficiently from his injuries (upon arrival at aquarium after rescue) to have a good chance of survival in the ocean?

The public isn't likely to notice one more octopus in the sea--they don't find octopuses much because their camouflage is so good. I suspect the aquarist kind of went "Oh, well, he is gone," knowing that he could easily just squeeze down the exit.  Anyone who keeps an octopus knows it's hard to stop them from escaping.


If most of an octopus's neurons are in its arms, does that mean octopuses lack central/coordinated control in some situations? That is, can some suckers or arms react to a scenario in a different way than other suckers or arms, causing the octopus to try to take two conflicting actions simultaneously? (Like some arms going one direction and other arms going the other, or something similar.)

Yes, think of it as allocating some control to the arm level.  That might be why octopuses do crawl efficiently but without a recognizable gait.  We know there must be some control, though, because, as you said, they don't go different directions.  Seastars also have this problem with their arms.

Do you think octupus' are as smart as dogs?

No, afraid not.  Partly this is because they are not social.

How long can an octopus stay out of water? When the octopus left the tank did it have the ability to return to the tank if it discovered it could not escape? In sum, did this octopus "go for broke" or was this a more calculated escape, or do we not know enough about how it would have planned this?

We don't know exactly how long because no one wants to do that study! Up to half an hour, partly depending on size.  It would have been difficult to climb up to a tank, but if it was the same level, the octopus could return, it's got good spatial memory.  I'd guess this wasn't a planned break, just going exploring.

What exactly is the difference between a squid and an octopus

Think of them as like a dog and cat, similar basic structure.  I once described a squid as like a torpedo with arms, a cuttlefish a blimp with arms, and an octopus like a plastic  bag with (longer) arms.

Someone asked earlier about Inky's injuries and whether he'd healed. The Associated Press had these details in a story today: 


"When Inky was found, he'd been attacked, probably by a snapper or some other fish, and a couple of his tentacles were half their normal length. After a year recuperating at the National Aquarium, said manager Rob Yarrall, Inky was once again in good health. And he'd been delighting the staff with his intelligence."

"He used to come up and you could hand-feed him. He'd grab hold of you with the suckers on his tentacles, or squirt water at you. And he worked out how to screw the top off a jar," Yarrall said. 

As a diver, I rarely see octopi while diving on Caribbean reefs during the day (although I did see one on a coral head in Bonaire on one of my first ever scuba dives!). Are they mostly nocturnal, and how does that impact studying their behavior in labs as well as in the wild?

Yes, most species are nocturnal and that's partly why you don't see them.  The other reason is their camouflage. Of course that makes studying them a problem, we mostly know about the species that are at least partly diurnal.

What sense guided her to the ocean?

Well, my guess is that she just got carried out on the water outflow current.

Is it true Octopuses are intelligent? I've heard that.

Yes, see next question.

What tests have been done regarding octopus intelligence that you feel yielded the most interesting results?

I like the tests of spatial memory, figuring out that octopuses (and cuttlefish) can navigate around the ocean bottom and remember where home is and also where they have gone.  And of course I like the tests of remembering how to take the lid off a jar to get at food inside.

Beyond blending in to their surroundings and responding to threats, how extensive are octopuses abilities to communicate with each other and the outside world by changing their skin color?

Well, you could call the camouflage 'non-communication'.  But there are a couple of species in which the male has specific patterns that it shows to the female.  And there may be more, we just don't know much about them.

Or does studying animal species turn you into a vegetarian?

I teach a Human-Animal Interactions class, and every year that exerts pressure on me, but so far I haven't become vegetarian.  I don't eat my animal! But I have a weakness for squid rings.

Back in the late '60s or early '70s, Jacques Cousteau did a program on the octopus, and eventually published a book on them. How much of his team's observations are still scientifically valid, and have any been disproven?

They were never quantitative, so aren't much more use than being 'good impressions,' and they suggested emotions that we can't prove.  But none of them are 'wrong'.

what do we know about octopus play? is there anything we can gleam about how they entertain themselves

We know that they can only have motor play, as they aren't social, there is no play between them.  We know they don't play much, and not more as young ones than adults (not like us mammals).  We suspect they do play when they are 'bored', as in captivity.  And it makes us think that they are intelligent, that it's just an offshoot of exploring.  As one expert says, moving from 'what does this object do' to 'what can I do with this object'.  Look up Mather, also Kuba for papers.

Are they really smarter than humans? I'd be shocked if they weren't!

No, afraid not nearly as smart as humans. On the other hand, look what we are doing with the planet....

I remember a television special from years ago that was about Jacques Cousteau and the Calypso, and there was undersea footage of one of the divers and an octopus. The diver described interacting with a large octopus that lived near their usual dive site during that time, and one day it seemed to be inviting him into its cave -- taking hold of him and tugging gently. Is there record of that sort of thing happened before or since?

Most scientists try to stay objective and shy away from that kind of interaction.  When we were watching octopuses in Bermuda, I remember one that seemed to come to the edge of its home and look around to see if we were there before it went out hunting (It could have been avoiding us).  On the other hand, read Sy Montgomery's Soul of an Octopus, a National Book Award finalist this year, about how octopuses interact with their keepers in aquariums setting.

If I wanted to give my next child a little bit of octopus DNA, how would I go about this?

Well, there are now scientists who can clip bits of DNA and inject them into another species.  I wouldn't ever advise it.  We don't understand at all what genes are doing to us, and octopuses are way unrelated to us.

What made you want to become an octopus expert?

Ah--I grew up on the coast of British Columbia, and as a kid I messed around at the seashore.  I had a shell collection and got fascinated by molluscs.  When I went to university, I thought I'd study ecology as I was interested the whole animal.  But I discovered animal behaviour and was hooked on that approach.  And octopuses were known to have interesting varied behaviour, so away I went.

How is it possible that a football-sized octopus squeezed into a 6-inch hole? What other small shapes or containers have you seen octopuses smash themselves into?

Octopuses have no bones, they have what we call a muscular hydrostat movement system.  So they can compress their body.  Now, add very strong arms to that and you have an animal that can go anywhere.  Apparently they can't compress their eyeball, so that's the limit.  I had one little octopus squeeze out through a crack in its 'home.'  Anyone who keeps octopuses spends a lot of time planning how to keep them in.

How many species of octupi are endangered in the wild? And how many different species are there?

We don't really know enough about the species and the populations and the oceans to know, the oceans are so unexplored.  But there's a very photogenic octopus in the sand/mud area of southeast Asia called Wunderpus photogenicus (the divers knew about them before the scientists) that we are worried about.  And there a couple of species (greater and less striped octopus) that we're not seeing many of.  The number of species is in flux, we still have lots of unnamed ones.  And the geneticists keep refining the species definitions and changing the names on us.  Let's go for a ballpark estimate of 100 species in the genus Octopus.  But remember the NOAA sent down a Remote Operated Vehicle down deep off Hawaii, and they found a new octopus just by having a camera down there. This was a couple of weeks ago. 

I bet DC Squirrel is jealous of all the attention that Inky's getting!

I reached out to DC Squirrel for comment, and this is his/her response: 


"As a proponent of animal solidarity, I would never speak ill of a fellow creature. Squirrels and octopi serve different purposes and have different skillsets. Inky was good at getting out of something. I’m good at getting into things: your attic, your garage, your birdfeeder…."

Can you please direct us to a good online map showing the distribution of octopi populations (octopulations?) around the world?

There's a UN survey of the cephalopod species of the world, it might have maps but probably has known areas.  But 'known' is a problem.

how long can an octopus survive outside of water

We don't know for sure, nobody wants to do the study.  Maybe half an hour, depends on whether it's slithering across wet rocks and algae or out in the hot sun.

Are octopuses as smart as Donald Trump?

I'll skip that one.

Do you think Inky will have a short life in the wild after his daring escape? Is there any way to know for sure?

Absolutely no way to know, we can't tell individual octopuses.  But octopuses live short lives, anyway, he'll probably have finished his lifespan in several months.

How large would one octopus' natural range be? I also have read about them changing colors when they encounter each other to communicate, and fighting. Is there frequently overlap in territory?

Depends on the octopus, think of a giant Pacific octopus and a tiny pygmy one.  Up to hundreds of metres [editor's note for Americans: about the same as yards] square. David Scheel is tracking GPOs in Alaska.  They do change colour but mostly for camouflage, and no they don't hold territories and yes, there is frequent overlap in home ranges.

When the octopus left the tank, would it have been able to get back into the tank if it decide it was best to return?

Depends, it might not be able to climb easily but otherwise it sure would.

A couple of questions: 1. Are we certain Inky made it to the ocean? 2. If an octopus is difficult to keep in captivity because s/he gets bored or wants to explore, is it ethical to keep them? I mean, apart from rehabilitative efforts?

No--how would we know?  It's probably OK to keep them until they want to reproduce (end of the lifespan), then it's ethical to release them to go find mates, which is what the Seattle Aquarium does with the giant Pacific octopuses.

Understand that Inky was originally caught a few hundred metres from the acquarium.Would he be likely to return there or go somewhere new?

Depends if it's good habitat.  When the Seattle Aquarium released a female, she stayed nearby for several weeks.  But the experience might have scared him too.

Isn't intelligence relative? An octopus may not have human intelligence but it does not need what we know in order to survive its environment. We would probably not know how to survive for more than a few minutes if we were trapped in an octopus's world.

Yes and no.  All animal are specialized for their particular ecological niche but some, like us, figure out how to expand the niche or change the ecosystem around them to suit them.

Do you watch?

No--scientists are kind of busy.

Other than the toxic species do octopi pose any threat whatsoever to humans?

Not that I can think of, most avoid us.  Blue ringed octopuses only bit if hassled, they would avoid us too.

Octopuses or octopi?

Octopuses! Saying octopi is putting a Latin ending onto a Greek word (oktopous).

And that's a wrap!

Thanks to you all for reading and to Dr. Mather for indulging our octopus fascination. Stay tuned to the Post's Animalia blog for more on the creatures of land and sea. 

In This Chat
Jennifer Mather
Jennifer is a professor of psychology at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. Mather has long studied the behavior of octopuses and squid, and her work has taken her to the waters of Bermuda, Hawaii and Bonaire.
Karin Brulliard
Karin helms the Animalia blog for The Washington Post. She is also the Post's former deputy editor for foreign coverage, and has reported from Iraq and served as bureau chief in South Africa, Pakistan and Israel.
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