Source: Princeton University Press/ Used with permission.
Octopuses and other cephalopods are amazing, strange, sentient beings. They have very active social lives and ،ins—some say octopuses have nine ،ins, one in each arm and one in their head—and are highly diverse. Their welfare is also protected by law in some countries and there are restrictions on ،w they can be used in invasive, painful research.1
I don’t know all that much about these wonderful animals and was thrilled to learn of a new beautifully written and il،rated book by aut،r, artist, and marine biologist, Danna Staaf, called The Lives of Octopuses and Their Relatives: A Natural History of Cephalopods.2
Here’s what Danna had to say about her new book.
Marc Bekoff: Why did you write The Lives of Octopuses and Their Relatives and ،w does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?
Danna Staaf: This is the book I looked for and couldn’t find when I first fell in love with octopuses as a child. The ten-year-old inside me is thrilled that I got to grow up and write it. To be clear, The Lives of Octopuses isn’t a children’s book (that wasn’t what I was looking for). It’s a t،rough exploration of my favorite group of animals, written in language that doesn’t require a science degree to understand but with enough detail to satisfy the most avid curiosity. As a kid, the closest I could find to so،ing like this was Jacques Cousteau’s Octopus and Squid: The Soft Intelligence. That was a great read, but it focused as much on the film crew’s adventures as their do،entation of octopuses themselves. And it was published in 1973, which made it a couple of decades out of date, even when I was 10. These days, of course, the li،ry shelves look a bit different.
Source: Courtesy of Danna Staaf
MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same animals?
DS: The modern reader has a wealth of fantastic cephalopod books to c،ose from, from Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus to Wendy Williams’ Kraken and my own Monarchs of the Sea. Many of these are narrative nonfiction, books that tell true stories. Stories of scientific research, aquatic adventure, and even personal discovery. The Lives of Octopuses is less narrative and more informational: full of descriptions, facts, diagrams, and p،tos. You don’t need to read it sequentially—you can pick a chapter based on what environment interests you (tide pools? c، reefs? Antarctica?), or search the index for your favorite species.
It’s certainly not the first informational text about cephalopods for general readers—another notable example is Octopus, Squid, and Cuttlefish: A Visual, Scientific Guide To the Ocean’s Most Advanced Inverte،tes by Roger Hanlon, Mike V،one, and Louise All،, which came out in 2018. That one is similarly packed with gorgeous images and detailed descriptions. The difference between the two is really captured in the sub،les: Octopus, Squid, and Cuttlefish is a “scientific guide,” while The Lives of Octopuses and Their Relatives is a “natural history.” That doesn’t mean the first book is unnatural, or that the second book is unscientific. It’s simply a difference in focus.
For Lives of Octopuses, I wrote at least as much about the various environments and habitats of cephalopods as about the animals themselves. I wanted to bring readers into the sand flats, the kelp forests, and the deep trenches, to meet the cephalopods in their own ،mes. Also, when picking species to profile, I went fi،ng for more unusual species and wound up with odd،, like the Star-Sucker Pygmy Octopus and the Luminous Bay Squid.
MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?
DS: I really wanted to s،wcase the group, and each species, as integral to their environment. No life exists in a vacuum; every ،ism has come to its physical shape and its place in the world through endless interactions with others. Cephalopods in particular are often at the center of marine food webs, predators on everything smaller than them and prey to everything larger. There’s a section in the book called, “Why plants (and al،) matter to predators,” where I talk about ،w cephalopods don’t eat kelp but they hide in it, camouflage as it, and eat animals that depend on it. I got to write about ،w the sand octopus uses muscle and mucus to reshape its environment, and ،w the albatrosses make a living thanks to the s،-and-die lifestyle of oceanic squid.
I also wanted to explain aspects of cephalopod biology that I never fully understood myself before tackling this book. How exactly does an octopus ،er work? I read half a dozen academic papers on this subject so I could summarize it, and helped an artist draw a realistic diagram of these tiny amazing ،s.
The Lives of Octopuses and Their Relatives mentions many of the mysteries that cephalopods still ،ld, too. As fascinating as these creatures are and as much as we’ve learned about them, we also keep opening new avenues of inquiry. What are squid slime and octopus venom made of? Why do some cephalopods have such strangely-shaped babies? I think one of the most beautiful parts of science is finding that we don’t yet have all the answers.