octopus dave

Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation

It's not very often that a movie comes out that features an octopus as one of the main (speaking) characters. (And they only occasionally become the star of a video game.) So if you wouldn't mind indulging me for a brief detour into animation territory, let's see what Hollywood gets right (and wrong) about this mysterious—and often misunderstood—animal.

Today's exhibit: Penguins of Madagascar (DreamWorks Animation, 2014). The main villain in the movie is a common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) named Dave (voiced by John Malkovich, so how could I not see it?). What can this caricature-of-a-cephalopod teach us—and the perhaps viewing public as well?

I was surprised and pleased that the movie actually got quite a few things right about the octopus (as much, perhaps, as an animated comedy of talking animals can). Here are my top seven fairly accurate octopus details:

Disguise: Dave the octopus frequently masquerades as another animal. In the real world, the mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) contorts its body and even swims like less delicious plants and animals. And many other species use elaborate color and texture camouflage to hide from predators—and prey. The movie, of course, takes this to an extreme and has Dave the octopus posing as a human scientist named Dr. Octavius Brine. The movie's writers get an extra point for the saline-themed pseudonym. (Although one helpful reader on IMDB.com points to a plot hole that "When Dave is dressed as a human, the humans understand him, even though he can't speak English." This is perhaps true—but also might be overlooking the feasibility of the first part of that statement.)

Tricks: In one of the early scenes, the affronted octopus (who is continuously upstaged by the cute penguins at zoos and aquariums) is reminiscing about the days when he could draw a crowd by opening jars and performing tricks. Although we don't know how much a captive octopus's self-worth is tied up in audience size, we do know that octopuses are quite good at solving puzzles such as opening jars. In fact, this kind of stimulation is now considered imperative to keep these intelligent animals occupied while in captivity.

Defense: In addition to this intelligence, the octopus has a number of other defensive tactics—including ink. But octopuses can also add extra goop (not the scientific term) to their inky output to clog the gills and/or eyes of their assailants. In an early confrontation with Dave the octopus, he uses this weapon to thwart his opponents.

Escape: In one battle scene, the penguins manage to capture Dave the octopus. But, as many octopus researchers and keepers will tell you, capture can be a deception. Mere moments after the octopus in the movie was put in confinement he was slinking to freedom through a drainpipe. Those who would try to confine an octopus will often find their charge similarly disappeared should they forget to close even the smallest cracks or holes. Which bring us to our next facet:

Squishiness: Muscular hydrostat is the more technical term. In the movie, Dave the octopus easily squishes his "head" (on a real octopus, this would mostly be the mantel) through the bars of a cage. This ability of a real octopus to squeeze itself through the tiniest of openings is one of the reasons they are exceedingly difficult to keep confined.

Walking: We might tend to think of octopuses primarily as swimmers. (And in many YouTube videos where they have been scared by divers, they do seem to be.) But benthic octopuses (as most species we know are) tend to prefer to get around by "walking." Perhaps because much of the movie was to be taking place above water, Dave the octopus spent much of the time getting around on his arms. Of course, as videos have shown, land walking for an animal used to near neutral buoyancy is not so elegant.

Clam juice: Ordinary octopuses don't have access to commercial clam juice like the clam juice box Dave the octopus sipped on in the movie. But they do slurp clams. Bivalves are a common octopus food. To get at these tough critters (and many of their other shelled meals), octopuses can drill a hole in the shell with their radula and inject a toxin that decreases the clam's hold on its shell—and begins to pre-digest the meal in the shell. That way the octopus can slurp the "juice" right out. No straw required.

But just to be clear, there are, of course, also some movie details that need correcting, too. Here are just a few:

Teeth: A toothy grin on this octopus is an endearing invention by the creators. Octopuses, of course have beaks, not teeth.

Arms: As pervasive as the use of the plural "octopi," the insistence on calling an octopus's appendages "tentacles" seems to be unshakable. They are, in fact, arms. Squid have tentacles, which reach out to help hook dinner—but only two of them. The rest of their limbs are arms, too. The number of tentacles octopuses have is zero.

Teamwork: No formidable villain would be complete without his or her army of minions. And Dave the octopus has his legion of loyal cephalopods to do his biddings. But octopuses are not quite capable of collaboration. They are more capable of cannibalism. Some online sites refer to the movie's cephalopod soldiers as "squid." As a rule, squid are much more socially tolerant that octopus species. But that doesn't mean they are building up fighting forces. (This lack of cephalopod coordination is perhaps the only thing saving us from an octopus takeover, and hopefully the robots won't learn it either.)

Philanthropy: Although Dave the octopus (a.k.a. Dr. Brine) claims to be a loyal donor to NPR pledge drives there is no scientific data out yet on actual octopuses' donation habits.

In all, for a movie meant to entertain the younger generations (and throw a few bones to the older generations accompanying them), Penguins of Madagascar did a pretty cool job of playing of the octopus's real biology. If only someday cephalopods will slink out of being type cast as the creepy, weirdo villain.

Learn even more about the factual--and fictional--world of the octopus in Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea, now also out in paperback! Nothing says happy holidays like a cephalopod.

Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen