Bookshelf: Octopus

Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate – Jennifer Mather, Roland Anderson & James Wood

I think I said I was done with reading about octopus for now, but I wasn’t. I found this book on my Kindle, obscured by more recent purchases, and decided to continue my cephalopod streak. This book distinguishes itself with a raft of beautiful, detailed photographs, and for this reason I’d advise you to try and get hold of a hard copy – pictures on e-readers are terribly unpredictable.


The authors of this volume are marine biologists, one of whom worked at the Seattle Aquarium. Their focus here is very much on the natural history of the octopus, with each stage of its life history explained in some detail. Their approach is noticeably different from, but complementary to, that of Peter Godfrey-Smith’s in Other MindsGodfrey-Smith is largely concerned with considering octopus cognition from various angles, but in this book the authors are as concerned with the physical properties of the octopus as they are with its congnitive abilities.

You could also quite happily read this book in tandem with Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus, which is largely written from the perspective of a volunteer aquarist. Mather et al’s Octopus fills in the scientific insights obtained from studying cephalopods in public aquaria, while Montgomery focuses more on interacting with the animals in a non-scientific context.

Most of the cephalopods used as detailed examples in this book are found only in US and Caribbean waters. The giant Pacific octopus features strongly, but it is hard to remain unmoved by an octopus that can weigh 45 kilograms when fully grown. The behaviour and broad aspects of their life history, however, seem to overlap with what is known about the octopus species we usually see while diving in Cape Town (generally the common octopus, Octopus vulgaris).

There are excellent references at the back of the book, for those who haven’t had enough of cephalopods yet and want to learn more. There is also a chapter on keeping octopus in captivity in a home aquarium, if you’re that way inclined (rather please don’t).

Get a copy here (South Africa), here or here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.