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Aselfie with a randy octopus was the last thing Matty Smith expected while diving off Sydney this month. He’d been shooting weedy seadragons with his new fisheye lens when he came across this male occy crawling along the open seabed – a most unusual behaviour for these animals, which tend to hide in crevices in daytime. Things got weirder when, spotting its own reflection in the 25cm-wide lens dome, it lunged for the camera and couldn’t be persuaded to let go for “two or three minutes”, Smith says. (Top tip: never get into a wrestling match with an octopus, they have four times as many arms as you.) His best guess as to what was going on? It had seen its reflection as a potential mate – this was the peak of the breeding season – or perhaps a sexual rival, and come to investigate.
The Common Sydney Octopus, despite the ordinary name, is a singular creature. It has three hearts, and blue blood, and can change the tone and texture of its skin in order to blend into its surroundings. When it needs to move quickly it uses jet propulsion. If it loses an arm in a fight it’ll simply grow another one. Its saliva contains powerful toxins and enzymes that both paralyse its prey – molluscs and crabs, mostly – and dissolve its flesh. And when it comes to sex things get really strange, says octopus expert Dr Mark Norman, Chief Conservation Scientist with Parks Victoria. The males are “sneaky maters” that like to do it at arm’s length – literally. They’ll sidle up to a female and use a modified arm called a hectocotylus to transfer a sperm packet to her, “almost like a handshake”, Norman says. “It’s like he’s asking, ‘Is it OK if I do this?’” There’s a good reason for such caution: immediately after sex, the female will often try to subdue her suitor and devour him.
You’ll be glad to know this particular octopus, after wasting his time with the camera, found himself a gal: later in the dive, Smith spotted the pair under a rock ledge, mating. So it’s a happy ending! Unless she ate him alive afterwards, obviously.