The Pretender

After several heavy posts in a row about extinction, I’ve decided to dedicate the following posts in the “Quantum Biology” series to something more light-hearted: Superpowers! We’ve already covered super-speed (The Pronghorn), mind control (Cordyceps Fungi), and regeneration (The Axolotl). Today’s superpower: Shapeshifting!

All octopuses have incredible powers of camouflage, changing their color and even their texture to blend in with their surroundings. The Mimic Octopus, which lives in the shallows of Indonesia, has gone further: it impersonates other animals. It has a repertoire of over 15 different species, including stingrays, jellyfish, brittle stars, flounder, sea snakes, seashells, anemones, and lionfish. If it wants to attract a crab, its main prey, it can imitate a female crab giving mating signals with a false claw. What’s more, it’s a quick and imaginative learner. In one case, a diver caught a mimic octopus unawares. After a few seconds of study, the octopus molded its tentacles into two arms, two legs, and a head, and turned black and blue to match the diver’s wetsuit; a miniature mollusk homunculus. The octopus impersonated a person.

The significance of this is profound. Many animals mimic other animals, but they’re usually born to mimic one species, and have no idea they’re doing so. (The poisonous monarch butterfly and the non-poisonous viceroy butterfly, for example.) Only two species can shapeshift to imitate many different animals, depending on the situation and need. Those two species are the mimic octopus… and us. And I believe that ability to emulate other animals is what has made us the dominant life form on Earth.

All intelligent creatures have a sense of play. (Including octopuses.) And when animals play, we tend to play grown-up, practicing skills we’ll use later in life. But human children do something else as well, completely unique to us: they pretend to be other animals. Look, I’m a bear! Grawr! Now I’m a frog! Hippity hop! Tiny shamans, children are. Then we’re inundated with fairy tales and Disney cartoons, and we quickly learn that animals think just like we do. Most of us believe that even through adulthood. But that ability to empathize with other animals, to try to think like them, might be key both the key to our success and to our redemption.

Most animals do one or two things extremely well. We, with our childlike brains and our dexterous hands that can become almost anything, figured out the tricks of the animal kingdom by watching. We became the fish’s tail, the crane’s beak, the eagle’s talon. Our fingers learned how to be spiders, and weave silk. If we couldn’t do it with our bodies, we made a tool for it: the crocodile’s tooth, the bird’s wings. In essence, we learned the skills of many animals without having the same responsibilities to our environment: to pollinate certain flowers or prey on certain insects. And because of our elastic brains, mimicking what we see, becoming the most useful part of any animal we want, we have out-competed the animals in their own niches.

But I do believe that it’s the ability to “become” other animals that will, in the long run, save us and the world. By seeing us as one of them, instead of putting pants on them and seeing them as one of us, we might yet be reconnected to the animal kingdom. By practicing “becoming” other animals while understanding that those animals have responsibilities we barely understand, we might consider them teachers again, and respect them, and become as fascinated children, playfully aping the ape.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

2 responses to “The Pretender

  • karen g

    OH.MY.This just made my morning, maybe my whole day.Lovelovelove

  • Will

    i heard a story about an octopus in a lab study. they were teaching and testing for intelligence, and the reward the octopus would earn was an oyster. well after a days work, the octopus was put back in its tank across the room from the oysters. the door was locked, the lights put out, and the tanks were shut tightly. the next morning, no oysters, but the octopus was still in his tank.
    they checked the security cam and it turned out that the octopus had slipped out of the tank, into the oyster-tank, ate them all, and slipped back into his own tank.

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