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