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Could an Octopus Really Be Terrorizing Oklahoma’s Lakes?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

TULSA, Okla.–As the rate of unexplained drowning deaths has reportedly crept up in Oklahoma’s placid lakes, some observers have turned to an unusual explanation: a freshwater octopus.

The legend of a killer cephalopod lurking in the murky waters of the state’s Lake Thunderbird, Lake Tenkiller or Lake Oolagah has been surfacing for at least the past several years. Animal Planet’s Lost Tapes even aired an investigation of this crypto-creature. This beast (or beasts), dubbed the “Oklahoma Octopus,” reportedly drags swimmers down with its many strong arms.

How could a sea creature have found its way to lakes in the Heartland?

This unlikely animal, people have explained, might be a rare living fossil, left over from the time (tens of millions of years ago) when this part of the country was, indeed, a shallow sea—and a perfect octopus habitat. Over the millennia, this particular line of octopuses has adapted to freshwater, these proponents suggest.

The octopus is a marvel of adaptation, thanks in large part to its short generation time (just months to a year) and its thousands upon thousands of offspring.

In its hundreds of millions of years on this planet, the octopus has managed to populate just about every corner, crevice and water column of the seas—from the warm shallows of the tropics to the deep frigid waters off the coast of Antarctica. It can even occasionally walk on land for short periods of time.

Could the octopus, conceivably, adapt to freshwater as well? Bolstering the case for the Oklahoma Octopus, some species of this animal are found in the brackish mouths of large rivers. But this theory has some big holes.

First, a shift to entirely fresh water would require some extreme changes in physiology, including the basic ion transport in their cells. No cephalopod has been known to make this whole transition.

Second, most of Oklahoma’s many lakes—including those in question—were constructed in the mid-20th century as engineering projects by damming local rivers. And a “river octopus” would have to have adapted to freshwater and at some point made its way up the Mississippi and subsequent smaller rivers, swimming upstream—and navigating numerous dams.

Unlike even Bigfoot, Chupacabra and the Loch Ness Monster, the Oklahoma Octopus has granted no photographic clues—no matter how blurry or improbable. Nevertheless, its absence does leave the reported rise in drowning deaths unexplained—except by a few folks who proffer that giant catfish are to blame.


But you can still find some octopus in Oklahoma! Thursday, December 19, Tulsa’s Circle Cinema along with Book Smart Tulsa, will be hosting a reading, talk and signing from Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea at 7pm.

Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. DaveMuckey 2:29 pm 12/19/2013

    This is entirely plausible. Those of us living in the Pacific Northwest are all too familiar with the deadly whip tailed tree octopus and the dozens of hiker deaths we experience every year.


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  2. 2. rossm 10:04 pm 12/19/2013

    Could it be that in Oklahoma not many people know how to swim?

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  3. 3. fire1fl 9:53 am 12/20/2013

    Should the headline writer for the SCIAM newsletter have his/her question mark on the keyboard removed?

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  4. 4. doctoratlantis 2:20 pm 12/20/2013

    Killer Oklahoma octopus? There’s a sucker born every minute.

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  5. 5. Jerrold Alpern 6:00 pm 12/22/2013

    Tree octopus, eh? Do they eat squirrels or do squirrels eat them?

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