Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/January 1879/The Devil-Fish and its Relatives

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 14 January 1879  (1879) 
The Devil-Fish and its Relatives
By W. E. Damon


PERHAPS no better introduction to this chapter can be given than to recall to the minds of our readers the terribly vivid description of the devil-fish by that grand master of romance, Victor Hugo; for, though incorrect in several scientific details, the general description is the best we have had, though Jules Verne's is almost as dramatic and nearer to Nature. In "Les Travailleurs de la Mer" M. Hugo says: "To believe in the existence of the devil-fish, one must have seen it. Compared to it the ancient hydras were insignificant. Orpheus, Homer, and Hesiod, imagined only the chimæra—Providence created the octopus. If terror was the object of its creation, it is perfection. The devil-fish has no muscular organization, no menacing cry, no breastplate, no horn, no dart, no tail with which to hold or bruise, no cutting fins, or wings with claws, no prickles, no sword, no electric discharge, no venom, no talons, no beak (?), no teeth. It has no bones, no blood, no flesh. It is soft and flabby, . . . a skin with nothing inside of it. Its under surface is yellowish; its upper earthy. Its dusty hue can neither be imitated nor explained; it might be called a beast made of ashes which inhabits the water. Irritated, it becomes violet. It is a spider in form, a chameleon in coloration.

"Seized by this animal," he adds, "you enter into the beast; the hydra incorporates itself with the man; the man is amalgamated with the hydra. You become one. The tiger can only devour you; the devil-fish inhales you. He draws you to him, into him; and, bound and helpless, you feel yourself slowly emptied into this frightful sac, which is a monster. To be eaten alive is more than terrible; but to be drunk alive is inexpressible!"

This overwrought but wonderfully dramatic description (but a small part of which we have quoted) at once excited a popular interest in the habits and history of the octopus, though it was well known and described by Aristotle before the Christian era. Moreover, the animal so

PSM V14 D360 Octopus or devil fish octopus vulgaris.png

Fig 1.—Octopus or Devil-Fish (Octopus vulgaris).

graphically pictured by the novelist was a mere "baby devil" in comparison with many which exist, and which have been described by that enthusiastic naturalist, Prof. Verrill, of Yale College.

In a letter addressed to me on this subject by Prof. Spencer F. Baird, under date of April 1, 1878, this distinguished naturalist says: "The giant squid in the New York Aquarium can only be designated as an infant or dwarf in comparison with the gigantic species of the Pacific Ocean—those upon which the sperm-whale is known to feed. Chunks of squid-remains are not infrequently found in the throat or stomach of the sperm-whale, apparently indicating specimens from ten to fifty times the size of the Newfoundland variety. I was informed that a considerably larger specimen than that at New York was cast ashore at Newfoundland later in the season. The arms of the latter, if I recollect right, were some ten feet longer than those of the other."

The specimen referred to by Prof. Baird, as at the public aquarium in New York, is of the species known as Architeuthis princeps. It measures about forty feet, and is preserved in alcohol. I have in a bottle some specimen portions of the sucking-disks, showing the serrated edges, from the arms of this terrible animal; and I have also a perfect specimen of a smaller species of the animal itself in my private collection.

Prof. Verrill's reports apply to the devil-fish found in our northern seas, and Prof. Baird mentions those cast ashore at Newfoundland; but that they are not limited to the northern waters is certain. The late Captain Frederick Reimer, of New Jersey, a very intelligent observer, who was in Beaufort Harbor, North Carolina, in 1862, described one that he saw there which measured fully thirty feet in length. Any one who has seen the specimen captured at Newfoundland can readily conceive how such a monster could stretch out its two long arms and seize its prey. These arms together form a pair of powerful pincers at their extreme ends, and are furnished for their whole length with two rows of

PSM V14 D361 The giant squid.jpg
Fig. 2.— The Giant Squid.

perfect sucking-disks, or some two thousand air-pumps; the edges are also cut into sharp, saw-like teeth, as hard as steel, and these are buried in the flesh of its prey. With all these appliances it could easily reach a distance of twenty-five feet, and bring the body of a man to its mouth, where, with its powerful iron-like beak, it crushes the helpless form, and swallows or drinks it down, as Victor Hugo says.

My own experience with these creatures has been principally in the Bermudas. They are there caught in basket-traps, formed of wood. With a trap baited with mussel, crab, or lobster, of which the octopus is particularly fond, we row along the island-shore, among the more rocky parts, until we discover some indication of the animal's retreat. Their hiding-places can only be discovered by experts, but one of the trails by which they are traced is the presence of dead shells in unusual quantities, particularly skeletons of crabs, which will be pretty certainly seen near the water's edge, or at the mouth of the cave inhabited by a "devil." The clearness of the waters greatly aids in the search. When a promising location is reached, we throw overboard the trap, which sinks to the bottom of some ledge, or rests upon a reef of coral. A rope, which is attached to it, is secured to a buoy to mark its place on the surface of the sea, and it is left for twenty-four hours. Then we return and haul it up, and, if the place of deposit has been well chosen, we shall soon see the long arms of Mr. Devil protruding through the basket, searching and stretching in all directions, seeking to understand how it is that positions have become so reversed—that he is the captured instead of the capturing party. His color changes with anger and vexation, and his body then displays numerous bunches or tubercles, which always appear when the animal anticipates danger.

The trap being opened, we seize him quickly by what we must call neck, the portion between the head and trunk, while his eight arms or legs, as you may choose to call them, are struggling and twisting in all directions, sometimes becoming attached to our own arms and twining

PSM V14 D362 An octopus running.jpg
Fig. 3.—An Octopus running.

about them. Those which I caught and handled had arms of remarkable softness and suppleness, so that their contact felt more like a running liquid upon my flesh than a structural substance;[2] and, indeed, though so formidable under certain circumstances, the preponderance of fluidity in their composition may be judged from the fact that I myself saw one, which measured three feet in length by five or six inches in width, squeeze or run itself through a crevice not over half an inch in width!

I should have mentioned that if it is desired to preserve the octopus alive, the pressure on the neck should not be too severe, for that is their vulnerable point; and a person attacked by one should never lose time in striving to loosen its arms, but grasp if possible this portion connecting the head and body, in which way they may be easily killed.

In regard to their powers of locomotion upon land, on which there has been considerable controversy, I can assure the reader that I have seen a full-grown octopus at the Bermudas spring up out of the water, only a few feet forward of the boat I was in, and run up a perpendicular rocky cliff for more than two hundred feet! This ledge of rock bore a general resemblance to our Hudson River Palisades at their steepest portion. We soon learned the cause of this seemingly strange performance, when we discovered one of those beautiful bright-red crabs, which are native to the locality, trying to escape from the clutches of this devil-fish. The crab, being frightened almost out of its simple wits, had run up the rocks for safety; but its tactics proved sure death in the end. As to the speed of the octopus, it appeared to me to travel much faster than I could run. At least, I should not care, if unarmed, to engage in a race with one, unless Mr. Devil started a good way ahead.

In this case I soon came into closer acquaintance with our agile friend, for the next morning

Fig. 4.—Pearly Nautilus (Nautilus pompilius), showing chambers inside of shell.

I had the satisfaction of discovering that he had walked into our trap, which had carefully placed near his cave; and now that we could see him face to face, we found that his strength was enormous as compared with his moderate size. Being placed in a bucket of water, such as is usually found on a ship's deck, he attached his eight arms to the bottom and sides, by means of his powerful and perfect-working suction-disks, so firmly, that I several times lifted the bucket, water and all, by taking hold of the animal's body, and twirled it over my head. The more I twirled the more firmly it stuck. An octopus will not relax its hold on compulsion, any more than Falstaff would "give reasons." It is as self-willed as some human animals.

According to scientific classification, the octopus belongs to the division of soft-bodied Mollusca, and the class of Cephalopodameaning "feet proceeding from the head." Of these the octopus, as its name indicates, has eight feet, or arms; for, though these long appendages are sometimes used as feet, they are habitually used as arms.

Of the octopoda family is the small paper nautilus or argonaut. How few of our readers who have admired this beautiful shell, with its mother-of-pearl lining, have realized that its former inhabitant was own cousin to the horrible devil-fish!—a female cousin, we must add, for the shell is not connected with the animal organically, but is held in position by two of the long arms, with the sole purpose of protecting the eggs. The male argonaut has no shell.

Though all the octopods, large or small, can swim freely at will, such is not their habit; they prefer to lie concealed, or partially so, on

PSM V14 D364 Paper nautilus.jpg
Fig. 5.—Paper Nautilus (Argonauta argo).

the side or in the clefts of rocks. There the octopod's body is protected from the attacks of other animals, while it can extend its long feelers in search of prey, of which fish, mollusks, and crustaceans, are the principal objects. Its movements, when an object of food is perceived, are marvelously rapid, swifter than the flight of an arrow from the bow of an experienced hunter. The long, flexible arms grasp the victim; its hundreds of suckers, acting like pneumatic holders, make escape impossible; and, as the long arms draw the object nearer and nearer, the other shorter arms add their multiplied disks, forming "a perfect mitrailleuse of inverted air-guns, which take horrid hold, and the pressure of air is so great that nothing but closing the throttle-valve can produce relaxation." This throttle-valve is the neck, as we have before described. Those lengthy appendages, the limbs, are rather in the way when the animal is swimming, and would act as drag-anchors if left pendent; but the octopus usually draws them close alongside, whence they extend in an horizontal position, acting the part of a tail to a kite. It propels itself by drawing in and expelling water through its locomotory tube. The octopus swims backward, and it has been remarked that it changes its color to a darker hue when it starts out for a swim.

This change of hue, apparently at will, is one of the most peculiar characteristics of the octopus. It may be considered the chameleon of the sea. Its ordinary color when in repose is a mottled brown; but if irritated it assumes a reddish hue, approaching to purple. Nature seems to have been almost superfluously careful in furnishing this animal with protecting elements; for this coloring-matter, which resides between the inner and outer skin, enables it even to assume the color of the ground or rocks over which it travels, so that one can hardly say what color it is before it may have changed to something quite different. When exhausted after a battle or a struggle to get out of a trap, it turns pale, like a human being.

PSM V14 D365 Argonaut without the shell.jpg
Fig. 6.—Argonaut without the Shell.

Others besides Victor Hugo's hero have had a chance to test the strength of these devil-fishes. Major Newsome, R. E., when stationed on the east coast of Africa in 1856-'57, undertook to bathe in a pool of water left by the retiring waves. He says: "As I swam from one end to the other, I was horrified at feeling something around my ankle, and made for the side as speedily as I could. I thought at first it was only sea-weed; but as I landed and trod with my foot on the rock, my disgust was heightened at feeling a fleshy and slippery substance under me. I was, I confess, alarmed; and so apparently was the beast on which I trod, for he detached himself and made for the water. Some fellow-bathers came to my assistance, and he was eventually landed. . . . As the grasp of an ordinary-sized octopus holding to a rock is not less than thirty pounds, while the floating power of a man is between five and six pounds, I believe if I had not kept in mid-channel it would have been a life-and-death struggle between myself and the beast on my ankle. In the open water I was the best man; but near the bottom or sides, which he could have reached with his arms, but which I could not have reached with mine, he would certainly have drowned me."

The major was right; he had every chance of sharing the fate of the immortal Clubin.

When a crustacean casts a limb from its junction with the body, it is after a time reproduced; if injured below this point, it has no recuperative power. But our "devil-fish," which really seems favored beyond its deserts, will reproduce any injured portion of its arms, at whatever point they may have been severed; of the numerous specimens which have been scientifically examined, many showed that one, two, or more arms have been either repaired or reproduced; and some of the female specimens have shown a loss of the whole eight arms, but all more or less restored.

PSM V14 D366 Argonaut with the shell.jpg
Fig. 7.—Argonaut with the Shell.

Another kind of exuviæ observed with the octopods is the outer skin of their long limbs, which they not infrequently shed. These cast-off skins float upon the water, and are one of the indications which lead to the discovery of their retreats. When the outer skin becomes too tight for the growing animal, or is worn too smooth by frequent contact with the rocks, the creature may be seen rubbing its arms against each other as if they were undergoing a scrubbing or cleansing process, and soon these thin, filmy skins may be seen floating away on the surface of the water.

At certain periods there appears in the male octopus what is called the hectocotylus development in one of the arms. When this gentleman would a-wooing go, as Mr. Lee says in his valuable little book on this subject, and "he offers his hand in marriage to a lady octopus, she accepts it most literally, keeps it, and walks away with it; for this singular outgrowth is detached from the arm of the suitor, and becomes a separate living creature," specimens of which have been preserved in the Museum of Natural History in Paris. This hectocotylized arm is afterward reproduced in the male.

It is surprising with what care the female watches over the development of the eggs. Having selected a snug retreat in the rocks, she will barricade it by dragging to the entrance other portions of rock, or perhaps a pile of oysters—anything out of which she can make a strong breastwork or line of defense; and then she sits on guard ready to attack any intruder, even though it be her own mate. The eggs when first laid are about the size of grains of rice, and are arranged upon a stalk which is attached to the rock by a cement secreted by the parent, and to which each egg is separately attached, like a mass of bananas on its stalk, only much more closely packed, the number being immense; an octopus will produce in one laying from forty to fifty thousand. Mr. Lee describes one that he had under observation in an aquarium, which he says "would pass one of her arms beneath the hanging bunches of her eggs, and, dilating the membrane on each side of it into a boat-shaped hollow, would gather and hold them in, as in a trough or cradle. Then she would caress and gently rub them, occasionally turning toward them the mouth of her flexible exhalent and locomotor tube, which resembles the nozzle of a hose-pipe, and direct upon them a jet of water." The object of the syringing process was probably to free the eggs from parasites, or to prevent the growth of confervæ upon them. At the end of five weeks some of the eggs were taken from the nest for observation under the microscope, which showed that the young octopods were already alive and freely swimming within the shell; and most extraordinary was it to see that these immature creatures exhibited the characteristic changes of color at that early

PSM V14 D367 Sepia officinalis and shell.jpg
Fig. 8.—Sepia officinalis and Shell.

stage of development, flushing red apparently with anger when disturbed. The period of incubation is about fifty days, and during all that time the mother octopus brooded her eggs with the tenderest care; so that the observer almost ceased to look upon her in the light of a "devil-fish," and recognized that at least the maternal instinct was not dependent for its development upon external beauty.

When the young octopus emerges from the egg it is about the size of a large flea, but has none of the arms developed; these appear simply as "rudimentary conical excrescences, having points of hair-like fineness arranged in the form of an eight-rayed coronet upon the head." The amiable disposition of all female devil-fish is not perhaps equal to that of the one described above; but it is not an unusual event for them to die from the effects of exhaustion at the end of the long brooding period. This may perhaps partly result from insufficient nourishment, as they must evidently miss many chances of obtaining food, which others, unburdened with family cares, avail themselves of.

The nearest relations of the octopus are the cuttle-fish and squids. The former, Sepia officinalis, is best known as the animal which produces that fine black-coloring fluid known as sepia-ink, and for its useful sepiostaire or internal shell, which is usually hung in the cages of canary-birds.

Though the cuttle-fish resembles in its general structure its relative the octopus, it varies in several particulars. Instead of eight arms, it has ten, eight short and two long. Some persons have pronounced them "beautiful"—in which opinion we cannot coincide; but their manners are decidedly more genial than those of the octopus. Instead of lurking in semi-concealed caves or behind rocks, and springing upon the unwary like a tiger from its jungle, the cuttle-fish comes out to the light and gives his intended victim a fair chance, having more the habits of a bird of prey than its congener the devil-fish. It is, however, very voracious, and fishermen have often cause to regret its proximity to the fishing-grounds, as it will attack fish while entangled in the nets and drag them out or bite and mutilate them. When attacked, its best defense is the sepia-bag, from which it ejects the black fluid, thus discoloring the water and escaping in the obscurity.

The eggs of the cuttle-fish are usually found attached to a branch of sea-weed and very ingeniously hung by a perfect loop, each one separately upon the twig, where together they somewhat resemble a bunch of grapes. As soon as the young are released, they seek the light and approach the surface of the water. The sepia is naturally very shy, and at the slightest alarm shoots forth with wonderful rapidity its foe-defying ink; but in captivity its fears may be overcome by kindness. It is not difficult to tame, and in time it appears to recognize and appreciate its protector, ceasing to discolor the water when sufficient familiarity has been established between them.

The eyes of the cuttle are so solid as to be almost calcareous, and are divided by a groove in the centre; these halves are nearly globose at their outer surfaces, and reflect light with a "beautiful nacreous opalescence and play of colors." In Italy they are made into beads for necklaces. The cuttle-bone when pounded is used as a polishing powder by jewelers, under the name of "pounce." It is also manufactured into a dentifrice, and sold under the name of "white coral-powder." Artists still use the natural sepia to some extent.

The common squid (Loligo vulgaris) has the same number of arms as the cuttle, but differs in form and some other particulars. The body of the cuttle is of a broad oval shape, with no perceptible neck; the squid is nearly triangular in shape, and has two plainly defined necks, one much smaller inserted within the other and projecting beyond it. It has also very large eyes in proportion to its size. It is a free swimmer like the cuttle; its spawn is also left to float freely, but in a large circular mass, consisting of an immense number of branches, all containing quantities of ova and united to a common centre. It has been estimated that these " mop-like " masses contain nearly forty thousand eggs. The squid is also privileged to carry an ink-bag, of which he makes very free use; and many fishermen attempting to catch them have experienced the fate of Tom Hood, of whom Mr. Lee tells the anecdote that, being unaware of this propensity of the cuttle-fish and squid, and having caught one of the former on his hook while angling in Love Harbor, he laid hold of it to unhook it, and received its full jet d'eau in the face. On being asked what he had on his line, he replied that he did not know exactly, but he thought he had caught a young garden engine!

As these sorts of creatures are never eaten in this country, it may be news to some that they are very extensively used as food in many countries at the present time, and that the ancient as well as the modern Greeks considered them a delicacy when properly cooked. One cause of the favor in which they are held by the Orthodox Greek Catholics on the shores of the Ægean Sea is the substitute which they offer in place of meat and fish, both of which are forbidden during the long fasts of the Greek Church. A cuttle is practically declared not to be a fish, and certainly it is not meat; and so it finds its way into the pots and frying-pans even of the ecclesiastics during Lent and other fasts in great quantities. A common way of catching them in the Mediterranean is by planting traps of stone jars or earthenware tubes, into which they creep, and are thus drawn up and secured. Everywhere they are used for bait, and the Indians of Vancouver's Island and Alaska eat them with relish, as do the inhabitants of China and the western coast of South America. There is a good story told of a party of savants in England endeavoring to make a dish of one, at a special dinner given for the purpose; but the attempt was a complete failure—no one could swallow a morsel. The ancients described them under the name of polypus, and all classical scholars will recall the frequent references to these animals as articles of diet, especially by the comic poets.

The greatest enemies to the class of cephalopods are the porpoises, dolphins, and conger-eels. The last do not hesitate to attack even a devil-fish of considerable size, while the young are snapped up by a great variety of fishes. In fact, if the great mass of all the spawn produced by the denizens of the ocean were not devoured or otherwise destroyed, the watery world would long ago have become so over-populated as to be unnavigable, and its condition incompatible with the health of the human race.

  1. From "Ocean Wonders." in the press of D. Appleton & Co.
  2. This lack of tension probably resulted from my pressure upon the neck.