Octopuses are Punching Fish

We’ve got eight-legged fisticuffs on the ocean floor

I love grumps. Oscar the Grouch is my favorite Sesame Street character. I’m obsessed with Grumpy Cat. I love the perpetual frowns of the sarcastic frindgehead and blobfish. I’m generally a positive person but somedays I wake up in a grump funk and I like to know there are creatures out there in the world who are right there with me.

This is why in December 2020, it felt like the science community gave me a gift. They revealed there was a new top grump of the ocean: the octopus. Apparently, octopuses also have an occasional bad day and when they do, they punch fish. You read that right, there is now scientific evidence that octopuses punch unsuspecting fish for no known reason. When I first saw this pop up while I was scrolling my feed, I immediately thought it was fiction.

But with a quick search, I found the gloriously named paper titled Octopuses punch fishes during collaborative interspecific hunting events. Sure enough, researchers were studying hunting parties that include a variety of different fishes. Octopuses are generally solo creatures but they’ll join these parties to help find prey. Think of these hunting parties like the Avengers. Each species has its own skillset and with their powers combined they can defeat Thanos … or in this case, find a tasty meal. For instance, a grouper finds prey it can’t get to in a crevice. They will do a little dance to signal to an octopus to use their tentacles to flush out the prey in the rocks.

While researchers were watching these hunting parties, they noticed that octopuses would occasionally punch their fellow party mates. Sometimes the researchers could see the cause for the punch. The octopus wanted the fish to get away from its prey or needed to redirect the fish. But occasionally they didn’t see a reason at all. An octopus would punch a fish out of the blue. Did they wake up on the wrong side of the coral? Are they hitting them up for lunch money? Are they going through a break-up? Or are they filled with existential dread as they contemplate the meaninglessness of existence? I have so many questions.

What I do know is that watching octopuses punch fish is the kind of Three Stooges-level slapstick I need in my life. “I almost choked on my regulator,” Eduardo Sampaio, one of the researchers behind the paper said in an interview with NPR.When I saw it for the first time, I just burst out laughing.

There’s so much more we have to learn about these schoolyard bullies and how they work together with other fish in these hunting parties. Scientists are using three-dimensional models to reconstruct what they’ve seen on the ocean floor. Hopefully, that will give them insights into the mind of an octopus and why they grump so hard. You can help these underwater Rocky Balboas by making sure the fight against plastics is one battle they don’t deal with.

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