New research reveals that octopuses in the Red Sea have developed a so-called “partner control mechanism” for dealing with fish that annoy them while they hunt.
The octopus will sucker-punch the fish.
Videos captured by the research team in Israel and Egypt show several cases of octopuses lashing out to drive off various species of fish on the Red Sea floor. The gesture resembles a punch, though it’s more of a “directed explosive arm movement” because they don’t have hands, researchers say.
Octopuses and fish are known to hunt together, and their skills complement each other well when they’re combing the sea bottom for food, according to lead study author Eduardo Sampaio. However, even the best partnerships trigger the occasional disagreement, and the Red Sea octopuses have shown that their first answer to such an issue is to throw a punch.
“Since multiple partners join, this creates a complex network where investment and pay-off can be unbalanced, giving rise to partner control mechanisms,” Sampaio explained on Twitter.
In other words, an octopus will punch a fish when the hunting duties are unfair — or whenever it feels like it.
The unusual behaviour has never been observed before, according to the authors of the study published in the journal Ecology. However, they saw multiple octopuses (Octopus cyanea) demonstrating the same punchy attitude on separate occasions, suggesting that the phenomenon is not a one-hit wonder.
Researchers saw the octopuses lash out in a variety of circumstances. Sometimes they’d punch a fish to gain an advantage, expending a bit of energy to immediately get their tentacles on some prey. However, there were times when there seemed to be no motivation for a punch, according to Sampaio, a researcher at the University of Lisbon in Portugal.
The study suggests these unexplained punches might have occurred out of “spite,” or in an attempt to “bully” the fish into co-operating in the future.
“The octopus pays a small cost to impose a heavier one on the misbehaving partner,” the study authors write. They add that punching is occasionally “a spiteful behaviour” used to hurt other fish, regardless of the effort it takes from the octopus.
The octopuses were not shy about what they punched. They socked it to some tailspot squirrelfish. They punched two kinds of groupers. They smacked yellow-saddles. They hammered some half-spotted hinds. They even suckered some Red Sea goatfishes.
Researchers say more study is needed to see if octopuses punch some fish more than others — and to figure out if the Red Sea is the only place to see the Rock’Em Sock’Em cephalopods.