Experts: “Nightmare octopus” in terrifying viral video was just being a normal octopus

Image: YouTube/Porsche Indrisie
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Terrifying. Man-eating. Misunderstood?

For the past 24 hours, the internet has been buzzing over a video showing an octopus in Yallingup, Western Australia leaping out of the water to snare an unsuspecting crab. The viral clip, captured by YouTuber Porsche Indrisie has been viewed almost 4,400,000 times since it was posted on Feb. 18.

But while the clip has been heralded by an assortment of headlines running the gamut from horrified (“Nightmare octopus jumps out of water,” declared Deadspin) to the downright ominous (“Be afraid, be very afraid,” warned the Irish Times), cephalopod expert James Wood assures Quartz that contrary to prevailing opinion, the eight-legged creature’s landlocked acrobatics are neither dangerous to humans nor all that uncommon.

“We really shouldn’t be that surprised,” Wood, curator of The Cephalopod Page and marine biology expert noted. “This is not not something new to humans. It’s just not caught on video often, likely because most octopuses are nocturnal.”

Wood says he has observed similar behavior on several occasions, both times when the octopus felt threatened by his presence and crawled out of the water in order to execute a dramatic—and effective—getaway.

Cephalopod expert Michael Vecchione of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC notes that octopuses are also notorious for escaping their aquarium tanks and “going for a walk down the hallway.” In the case of the octopus in the video, Vecchione told Quartz that there are several species of octopus in the region that are also known for crawling between tide pools. However, he added, “usually when these species are crawling from tide pool to tide pool they’re not galloping.”

The remarkable speed of this particular octopus’s approach may be one of the reasons why it has so captivated the Internet. But Wood worries the viral video will be used to further slander octopuses’ good name. Octopuses have long inspired mythological horror stories, from the Icelandic Kraken to Disney’s nefarious sea witch Ursula. Based in fact or hopelessly sensationalized, such tales usually vilify intelligent invertebrates, part of a broader cephalopod class of sea life that includes squid and cuttlefish, among other creatures. This jump to anthropomorphize the species as sneaky and dangerous is a tragedy and a missed opportunity, according to Wood.

“Humans are very self-centered,” he says. “This is an animal that is very, very different from humans. It has a brain, good senses, and it’s a really good model for what life could look like that’s not a version of us. There’s a long history of fascination with cephalopods. But we tend to demonize things that are different, because we don’t really understand them. I think they are absolutely fantastic.”

While unable to positively identify the particular species in Indrisie’s video, Wood says that there are several reasons an octopus might be persuaded to forego their typically predator-adverse nature to make a quick appearance on land. Although ungainly, octopus are incredibly strong, as evidenced by the way the octopus in the video quickly engulfs its prey before shuffling back into the safety of the water.

“We never know what an animal is thinking,” Wood said, “But if you want to train an octopus, get some crabs or shrimp. They’re very food-motivated and definitely go for crustaceans.”