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Here's the Science Behind the 'Nope Octopus' Meme

Know your meme science.
June 24, 2016, 3:27pm
GIF: Giphy

I don't know how it happened, but over the last decade or so, the internet became obsessed with cephalopods. Octopi, squids, cuttlefish, you name it—anything with tentacles and big, saucer-shaped eyes eventually became its own viral sensation.

And while I have my own suspicions regarding why these humble, yet wonderful, cephalopods gained sticky (heh) traction online, I'd be remiss to ignore the undeniable influence that was the "octopus running," or "nope nope nope octopus" meme.

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For the record, "tentacle porn" was too off the charts to even show here. Source: Google Trends

For the unfamiliar, at one point during the early 2000s, someone created a delightful GIF of a veined octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus) scampering across the seafloor, and released it onto the internet. These days, the GIF is more commonly searched for as the "nope octopus," but it reportedly first appeared on June 13, 2012, when a Redditor "submitted an animated GIF of an octopus walking across an ocean floor with the caption 'nope nope nope nope' to the /r/funny subreddit, garnering upwards of 3,100 up votes and 40 comments."

As far as I can tell, the GIF's original source is a video created by Australia's Museum Victoria in 2009. According to the museum's website, the video was shot by researchers Julian Finn and Mark Norman who spent more than 500 hours studying veined octopus behavior in Bali, Indonesia. A corresponding paper, which claims to have documented the first-ever observed case of tool use by an invertebrate, was published that year in Current Biology.

But the video also managed to capture a unique behavior called "stilt-walking," which is that goofy two-tentacled strut the Australian researchers described as "ungainly and clearly less efficient than unencumbered locomotion," by which the octopus "gains no protective benefits." Damn.

This seemingly impractical attribute was first noticed in 2005 by marine biologist Christine Huffard. While conducting field work near Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the researcher from University of California, Berkeley saw that two species of tropical octopus had a strange habit of becoming bipedal when threatened.

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"It was easy to get them to act defensively when you're chasing them with a camera, and we got footage of the coconut octopus walking on two arms. It was hysterical to see. We laughed, and our masks filled up a little bit with water," Huffard told Science Friday.

According to Huffard, whose research on stilt-walking was later published in Science, both the veined octopus and algae octopus (Octopus aculeatus) use this behavior as a nifty defense mechanism against predators. When threatened, the tiny octopi will either raise or coil six of their tentacles while "tip-toeing" on the other two, which allows them to escape while remaining inconspicuously concealed (sort of).

Even though an octopus' primary defense is often its masterful camouflage—which it controls using color-changing cells called chromatophores—when startled, it will often forgo its disguise for the sake of speed. By walking upright, the octopus is somehow able to maintain its camouflage while simultaneously fleeing the scene.

As far as the biomechanics of stilt-walking go, Huffard discovered that three bands of contracted muscles within each tentacle allow the octopus to remain stable while it pushes off from the sand. At the same time, hydrostatic pressure created by fluid-filled chambers throughout the octopus' body are responsible for keeping its shape as it jets forward through the water.

Engineers currently working on soft robotics have actually mimicked this locomotion technique, which I covered earlier this year when Italian researchers successfully created two underwater "octobots." Interior cables within the robots' arms replicated the musculature of real cephalopods, and even allowed them to stilt-walk across the seafloor, although the end result was decidedly less graceful.

So far, only a few octopus species have been observed stilt-walking, but Huffard tells Science Friday that the goofy behavior is probably more common than we think. And while it's a bummer to discover that our beloved meme is actually just a stressed-out octopus, it's still an encouraging reminder that there's so much cephalopod love on the internet.