Three years ago on a family car trip I started reading a magazine article about octopuses out loud to my husband and daughters, who then were 14 and 10 years old. It held everyone’s attention for more than 20 miles. In the article Sy Montgomery, an award-winning science and nature writer, described meeting a sweet-tempered octopus named Athena at the New England Aquarium and learning about how amazingly intelligent these creatures are. My girls shrieked with laughter as Montgomery described octopuses escaping from laboratory tanks and evading college students who tried to catch them.
Now Montgomery has expanded her encounter with octopuses into a book that’s packed with amazing facts about these alien but engaging creatures. Did you know that octopuses can taste with their skin? That they’re deft and curious enough to take apart a Mr. Potato Head toy for fun? That they’re extremely social with people, and will hold onto a trusted person’s hands and arms for hours? Or that these shape-shifters can squeeze through tiny holes and transform their bodies, changing their skin’s color, pattern, and texture in less than a second?
The Soul of an Octopus is also full of behind-the-scenes stories about the New England Aquarium, where Montgomery spent many hours getting to know cephalopods (the class of marine mollusks that includes octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish). She recounts how keepers tackle challenges like luring reclusive electric eels out from hiding so visitors can see them, and describes the many practical roles that slime plays in the ocean. Her writing is deceptively clear and simple. Here’s how she explains that octopuses clearly have “theory of mind” – the ability to perceive what another creature is thinking:
“An octopus must convince many species of predators and prey that it is really something else. Look! I’m a blob of ink. No, I’m a coral. No, I’m a rock! The octopus must assess whether the other animal believes its ruse or not, and if not, try something different.”
May 2015 is Get Caught Reading Month. If you want to engage middle or high school science students, pick this book up, crack it open to any chapter, and start reading aloud.