How does an octopus eat?

August 2005

That’s a great question, and you may be surprised at the answer.

Octopus favor shellfish as food, particularly crabs and lobsters, but some species also feed on plankton and fish.

Because the octopus is such a gelatinous, floppy, mobile creature, it seems odd that it has such rough and tough feeding habits. It uses a sharp, horn-like beak, much like a parrot’s beak, and a radula, a rough, tongue-like organ that drills and scrapes, to devour its favorite foods – crabs and lobsters.

The  mouth is located in the center of its arms at the base of its bulbous-like head, which is sometimes called a “bell.” The arms are joined in an area known as the “skirt.” In the center of the skirt is the mouth. Using the suckers on its arms, the octopus seizes prey and pulls it up to its mouth, where a poisonous, salivary secretion is immediately released from the beak. The secretion paralyzes the prey and partially digests it. The octopus then uses the horny beak and radula to feast on its catch. Although crabs and lobsters are an octopus’ most common prey, some  species feed on other shellfish, plankton and marine fish.

Typically, octopus have eight arms and each arm sports two rows of fleshy suckers. Generally, there are some 240 suction cups on the underside of each arm. If an arm is lost from injury or disease a new arm grows in its place.

There are approximately 200 known species of octopus. The octopus in North Carolina waters is Octopus vulgaris, a small species weighing only a few pounds and having a short life span of 12 to 18 months. Larger species are most often found in cold, northern waters.

Octopus are loners and most make their homes in shallow water. They live inside dens or small caves on or near the ocean floor. If no such nooks are available, they easily adapt to living inside old car tires, pots, jars or other rubble. They frequently block the entrance to their homes with rocks and debris to keep out intruders.

Octopus have highly developed central nervous systems, well developed eyesight and are excellent at camouflage. They exhibit complex behaviors, are masters at coordinating their eight independently-working arms, and quickly learn to navigate mazes and distinguish colors and shapes. All this indicates an unusual degree of intelligence. They are truly awesome animals!