“I get asked all the time, ‘Can you get octopuses?’” says Jeff Slemp, proprietor of a store called Cuttlefish and Corals Sustainable Saltwater Aquariums, in Portland, Oregon. Slemp isn’t opposed on principle to keeping these big-brained, unusually smart mollusks as pets, but he won’t sell octopuses to just anyone. “We have to make sure they have the background, make sure they have the knowledge to treat the things that pop up.”
One of those pop-ups is the octopuses themselves. Because they’re solitary, they can fare better in captivity than animals whose rich familial and social lives can’t be reproduced there—as long as they’re provided a suitably rich environment. They’re master escape artists, able to slop through thin cracks and out of all but the most securely sealed tanks—one of many traits that make them uniquely challenging and costly animals to keep.
Such traits make octopuses stars of the page and screen. A slew of research papers, popular books, magazine articles, and nature documentaries celebrates their improbable intelligence (a mollusk with a vertebrate-size brain and problem-solving ability!), their protean shape- and color-shifting, even their playfulness and idiosyncratic personalities.
Just this month, the season premiere of PBS’s Nature series, “Octopus: Making Contact,” told the endearing tale of the close relationship between an Alaskan professor and his daughter and their pet octopus. In Seattle, the artists, writers, musicians, and scientists of the Cephalopod Appreciation Society gather each summer to celebrate octopuses and their squid and cuttlefish cousins in image, word, and song.
And at aquariums around the world, octopuses are reliable crowd pleasers. The Seattle Aquarium holds an annual Valentine’s Day party to mark the would-be mating of its giant Pacific octopuses (the world’s largest species, sometimes weighing more than 100 pounds, with an arm span of up to 20 feet).
“Octopuses are very charismatic,” says James Wood, a marine biologist turned aquarium operator based near Palm Beach, Florida. “It’s cool now to be a nerd, and they’re the ultimate nerd animals.” So it’s only natural that ardent aquarium hobbyists and newly sea-struck fans alike may get the urge to have their own eight-legged marvels. “Reading all the articles out there, people see themselves in these animals,” says a salesman at one leading marine-animal importer, who asked not to be named because he spoke without authorization.
Even so, it’s unclear whether all the fascination is hurting octopuses. That’s partly because records of imports of cephalopods to the United States are spotty and out of date. Wood and other experts fear that too much enthusiasm may endanger two of the most dazzling and mediagenic, but little studied and potentially rare, species: the striped or wunderpus octopus (discovered in the 1980s) and its cousin, the mimic octopus (identified only in 1998). And they worry about the danger posed to naïve hobbyists by the alluring, but lethally venomous, blue-ringed octopus.
Wunderpus and mimic octopuses are the ultimate quick-change artists, hiding in plain sight by impersonating everything from rocks and seaweed to sea snakes and lionfish. They quickly became the darlings of the nature programs. But much remains unknown about them, especially about mimics, including how many inhabit the shallow seabeds off Sulawesi, Indonesia, and other Indo-Pacific islands where they’re found.
Vendors and importers sometimes conflate the two species, but that doesn’t stop them from offering both to collectors willing to pay $200 or more for one. Demand in the U.S. seems to have begun growing in the few years for which official import data have been released, although the numbers were small. One import of a mimic was recorded in 2008, two in 2009, and 30 in 2011, the last year available.
Even if that demand continued exponentially, it would be legal: None of the 300-plus known species of octopus is listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates cross-border trade in wildlife, or the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). This may reflect a lack of information—for example, in the case of the mimic octopus. On the Cephalopod Page website, which Wood edits, aquarist Christopher Shaw and University of California, Berkeley, biologist Roy Caldwell posted a package of articles under the headline, “Mimic Octopuses: Will We Love Them to Death?”
“If there is one thing that we know about mimics,” Shaw writes, “it is that they are rare.” He notes that their Indonesian coastal habitat is being wiped out by runoff and mining and that they do poorly in captivity, which means many mimics likely die so one can survive a few months in a tank. He urges even public aquariums to resist the lure of this trophy: “I honestly fear that if we cannot stem their collection, there will be no mimics to wonder at in a very few years.”
Another celebrated octopus presents a different concern. All octopuses probably carry some venom, but only the various golf ball-size blue-ringed species, which range from southern Japan to Australia, are known to pack a lethal dose. Their saliva contains the potent nerve toxin tetrodotoxin, the same compound that makes California newts, harlequin frogs, and fugu pufferfish liver so deadly. One blue ring can carry enough to kill 10 or more humans.
Blue-ring bites occur each year in Australia, but timely, vigorous artificial respiration usually prevents fatalities; only three have been confirmed during the past century, none involving aquariums. More blue-ring fatalities may go unidentified, however, because the bites are painless and the mode of death—respiratory paralysis—can be caused