The Pacific Northwest tree octopus (Octopus paxarbolis) can be found in the temperate rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula on the west coast of North America. Their habitat lies on the Eastern side of the Olympic mountain range, adjacent to Hood Canal. These solitary cephalopods reach an average size (measured from arm-tip to mantle-tip,) of 30-33 cm.
Unlike most other cephalopods, tree octopuses are amphibious, spending only their early life and the period of their mating season in their ancestral aquatic environment. Because of the moistness of the rainforests and specialized skin adaptations, they are able to keep from becoming desiccated for prolonged periods of time, but given the chance they would prefer resting in pooled water.
An intelligent and inquisitive being (it has the largest brain-to-body ratio for any mollusk), the tree octopus explores its arboreal world by both touch and sight. Adaptations its ancestors originally evolved in the three dimensional environment of the sea have been put to good use in the spatially complex maze of the coniferous Olympic rainforests. The challenges and richness of this environment (and the intimate way in which it interacts with it,) may account for the tree octopus's advanced behavioral development. (Some evolutionary theorists suppose that "arboreal adaptation" is what laid the groundwork in primates for the evolution of the human mind.)
Reaching out with one of her eight arms, each covered in sensitive suc***s, a tree octopus might grab a branch to pull herself along in a form of locomotion called tentaculation; or she might be preparing to strike at an insect or small vertebrate, such as a frog or rodent, or steal an egg from a bird's nest; or she might even be examining some object that caught her fancy, instinctively desiring to manipulate it with her dexterous limbs (really deserving the title "sensory organs" more than mere "limbs",) in order to better know it.
Map of estimated tree octopus maximum range, including spawning waters
Tree octopuses have eyesight comparable to humans. Besides allowing them to see their prey and environment, it helps them in inter-octopus relations. Although they are not social animals like us, they display to one-another their emotions through their ability to change the color of their skin: red indicates anger, white fear, while they normally maintain a mottled brown tone to blend in with the background.
The reproductive cycle of the tree octopus is still linked to its roots in the waters of the Puget Sound from where it is thought to have originated. Every year, in Spring, tree octopuses leave their homes in the Olympic National Forest and migrate towards the shore and, eventually, their spawning grounds in Hood Canal. There, they congregate (the only real social time in their lives,) and find mates. After the male has deposited his sperm, he returns to the forests, leaving the female to find an aquatic lair in which to attach her strands of egg-clusters. The female will guard and care for her eggs until they hatch, refusing even to eat, and usually dying from her selflessness. The young will spend the first month or so floating through Hood Canal, Admiralty Inlet, and as far as North Puget Sound before eventually moving out of the water and beginning their adult lives.
Why It's Endangered
Although the tree octopus is not officially listed on the Endangered Species List, we feel that it should be added since its numbers are at a critically low level for its breeding needs. The reasons for this dire situation include: decimation of habitat by logging and suburban encroachment; building of roads that cut off access to the water which it needs for spawning; predation by foreign species such as house cats; and booming populations of its natural predators, including the bald eagle and sasquatch. What few that make it to the Canal are further hampered in their reproduction by the growing problem of pollution from farming and residential run-off. Unless immediate action is taken to protect this species and its habitat, the Pacific Northwest tree octopus will be but a memory.
Cascadia Evening Post
Tree Octopus hat from 1923 (Click to enlarge.)
The possibility of Pacific Northwest tree octopus extinction is not an unwarranted fear. Other tree octopus species -- including the Douglas octopus and the red-ringed madrona suc*** -- were once abundant throughout the Cascadia region, but have since gone extinct because of threats similar to those faced by paxarbolis, as well as overharvesting by the now-illegal tree octopus trade.
The history of the tree octopus trade is a sad one. Their voracious appetite for bird plumes having exhausted all the worthy species of that family, the fashionistas moved on to cephalopodic accoutrements during the early 20th Century. Tree octopuses became prized by the fashion industry as ornamental decorations for hats, leading greedy trappers to wipe out whole populations to feed the vanity of the fashionable rich. While fortunately this practice has been outlawed, its effects still reverberate today as these millinery deprivations brought tree octopus numbers below the critical point where even minor environmental change could cause disaster.
How You Can Help
Here are a few things that you can do to help save the Pacific Northwest tree octopus:
Tree Octopus poster
Posters motivate the citizenry to action! Post them!
Write your representatives to let them know that you are concerned and that you feel the tree octopus should be included on the Endangered Species List and given special protection.
Help build awareness of the tree octopus by telling your friends and co-workers.
Place a tentacle ribbon on your website.
Participate in tree octopus awareness marches. You can demonstrate their plight during the march by having your friends dress up as tree octopuses while you attack them in a lumberjack costume.
Pamphlet your neighborhood. Tentacle ribbons make excellent doorknob hangers.
Join and donate to an organization committed to conservation, such as Greenpeas.
Boycott companies that use non-tree-octopus-safe wood harvesting practices.
Sign an online petition! Nothing activates activity like an Internet petition.
2010-05-01: Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race includes tree-octopus-awareness vehicle.
2009-04-01: Demonstration by students from Montrose Elementary in Bexley, Ohio.
Spread awareness with our Tree Octopus Activities.
More Tree Octopus Information
Tree Octopus FAQs — Frequently asked questions, now with answers.
Tree Octopus Sightings — Includes photos of and behavioral research on the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and other tree octopus species.
Tree Octopus In The Media — appearances of tree octopuses, both real and fictional, in the media and popular culture.
Research On Other Tree Octopus Species:
Pitch-Chewing Tree Octopuses Of British Columbia — Octopuses in BC have long been reported chewing the pitch of Sitka spruce like gum, and will even go into the trees to forage for it.
Olive Loving Tree Octopuses Of Antiquity — Octopuses in Greece were known since ancient times to climb olive trees to feast on the tasty fruit.
More On Old World Tree Octopuses — Ancient writers, such as Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, tell of octopuses that venture onto land, including one that used a tree to commit burglary.
The Ara-Eaters: Tree Octopuses Of Polynesia — Reports from the 1800s tell of island octopuses that are attracted to the fragrant flowers of the pandanus tree.
Nicharongorong: Tree Octopuses of Micronesia — Reports of Palauan tree octopuses that give birth in mangrove trees and eat lizards.
Links To A Better Tomorrow
Cephalopods In General:
The Cephalopod Page — Scientific information about these wonderful mollusks.
The Octopus News Magazine Online — An online magazine about anything and everything pertaining to octopuses, squids and cephalopods.
Have a Gibbous Cephalopodmas!
Other Animals Of Interest:
Save The Mountain Walrus — Another endangered Northwest creature that needs our help. (Original site down, link is to Archive.org mirror. Also, see the Mountain Walrus Foundation for some photos.)
Save The Manhattan Beach Mottled Roach — Save one roach today, that tomorrow we may save millions!
Rock Nest Monster — Known only from its rocky nests and porcelain-like eggs, Cryptogorgo petronidus is so endangered that existential environmentalists wonder if it ever existed at all.
Dwarf Orca — Rare miniture killer whale sometimes seen in Cascadian waters. Now being bred as a family pet!
Giant Palouse Earthworm — This threatened earthworm (Driloleirus americanus) is native to the Palouse prairies of Washington and Idaho. They can grow up to three feet in length, are pinkish-white, and smell of lilies.
The Red Crabs of Christmas Island — Once every year, 120 million of these forest crabs migrate en masse from their inland burrows to the sea to spawn. Along the way, over a million are crushed by traffic and many die of dehydration crossing deforested land. The offspring of those that survive then have to contend with super-colonies of yellow crazy ants, introduced to the island by the thoughtless actions of Man.
The Australian Drop Bear — Thylarctos plummetus is a large, arboreal, predatory marsupial related to the Koala that ambushes prey by dropping on it from the forest canopy.
Coconut Crab — This hermit crab, Birgus latro, is the world's largest terrestrial arthropod. It lives in the costal forests of Indo-Pacific islands, where it spends the day sleeping in burrows and the nights climbing palm trees looking for coconuts to crack open with it's mighty claws. It's also rumored to steal things from people and lurk on trashcans.
Mangrove Killifish — This unique fish spends several months out of the year living above water in the trees of mangrove swamps.
Sabertooth Salmon — The 3 meter (10 foot) long Smilodonichthys rastrosus once prowled the shores and rivers of Cascadia, attacking Cretaceous octopus swimming in the waters. Could escaping this menace have been the impetus for arboreal octopus evolution?
Fur-Bearing Trout — Also sometimes called Beaver Trout, these species of the Artikdander genus can be found in the chilly streams and rivers throughout the northern regions of North America.
Yeti Crab — This crustacean (Kiwa hirsuta), found near mysterious Easter Island, protects itself against the frigid waters with a silky covering of blond fur on its arms and legs.
Mayfly Squid — Fons volatilis is a freshwater squid found in the Everglades that shoots insect prey out of the air with jets of water and is celebrated during the annual Festival of the Freshwater Squid in Sebring, Florida.
Flying Squid — Squid species in the Ommastrephidae family are known for their ability to glide through the air just above the open ocean, using their fins and stretched arm membranes as wings. Their numbers have been dropping due to over-fishing.
Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods — A 1911 book by William T. Cox that lists little-known animals, most now extinct, discovered by lumberjacks in the wilds of North America.
World Conservation Union — An international organization whose mission is "To influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable."
The Wildlife Fund — The WWF works to preserve genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity throughout the world.
UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre — An office of the UN that provides information for policy and action to conserve the living world.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Pumpkins — How many pumpkins must be sacrificed every year to decorate our houses and keep our bellies filled with pies before we realize the error of our ways? Too many, it seems!