Canny creatures with radical radula

Photo: Jerry Kirkhart

Molly Clarkson —

Four hundred and twenty million years ago, the ancestors of naw/nuu East Pacific Red Octopus had bodies that were covered by a thick shell. But as fish became more abundant competition for food forced this animal to adapt and become a more effective predator. They internalized their shells, and evolved a keen intelligence to compensate for the vulnerability of their new, soft exteriors.

This shift from protecting themselves with armor to the development of physical and mental agility, mirrors the evolutionary path of human beings – as our brains became larger and larger, our physical strength diminished. And while naw/nuu are not going to win any bingo championships, recent research shows that naw/nuu are very canny creatures. For example, naw/nuu have been seen creating and using tools for both defensive and offensive purposes, escaping their aquarium tanks in order to catch prey in a nearby tank and then heading back to their own tanks and pretending nothing has happened, and solving and recalling solutions to complex puzzles over an extended time period.

Naw/nuu are not picky eaters – they will hunt, kill and eat anything that crosses their path that is not trying to eat them. Hunting at night, naw/nuu kill their prey with neurotoxic venom secreted from salivary glands, then crack the shell with their sharp beak. Naw/nuu can also drill a hole in the shells of snails with a stiff, drill-like tongue called a “radula” and inject a chemical that separates the snail’s flesh from its shell – raw clam smoothy anyone?

Naw/nuu are also adept at not becoming prey. While their normal color is red or reddish brown, like other cephalopods, naw/nuu uses its three layers of three different types of cells near the skin’s surface to change colours in a fraction of a second. From yellow to brown, white, red or a variety of mottled colors. To communicate or court, a naw/nuu might change to a colour that is in contrast with its surroundings, but to hide, it will camouflage itself. It can also alter skin texture to match sandy or a rocky surface.

There are many stories about naw/nuu in Haida oral traditions. While some of these stories, such as the Nuu Story told by Stephen Brown and animated by the community stop-action animation group Haidawood highlight the ferocity of naw/nuu, others such as “He who marries the daughter of the Devil-Fish Chief” and “The woman who married a Devil-Fish” in John Swanton’s Contributions to the Ethnology of the Haida depict naw/nuu as loving spouses who are generous with their in-laws. For example, both of the Swanton stories from Gaaw/Gaw make reference to the bounty of inter-tidal foods that the naw/nuu spouse and their partner brought when they visited on land.

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