Staring into the depths and beauty of our water-planet, many ocean lovers may not realize that the answer to “where did the octopus come from?” might lie in the exact opposite direction of where we’re looking. While Darwinism would have you believe that life was created from the primordial soup, another theory—panspermia—maintains the belief that certain aspects of life and evolution may have developed due to “seeds” of matter that came to Earth from other planets.
Before you laugh, just keep in mind that scientists estimate there are more than 100 billion planets within the Milky Way galaxy and a possible 100 billion galaxies in the universe. That’s 1022 planets that could potentially hold life. In 2018, a group of 33 scientists published a paper purporting that the ancestors of the modern-day octopus arrived on Earth from one of these planet’s “seeds.” Here’s the evidence they presented for why these amazing marine animals actually came from space.
According to evolution, animals with the most adaptive characteristics will likely survive and reproduce more than disadvantaged animals, therefore passing down these traits which change and refine over time, creating evolution as we know it. But the octopus is a little different.
The main characteristics we associate with octopuses—large, non-centralized brain, camouflage abilities (check out these article that explains how they do this!), and flexible bodies—all appeared on the evolutionary scene quite suddenly during the Cambrian Explosion. Before then, the octopus’ ancestors looked very different; most notably, they were shelled.
One of the earliest fossils from this era, called Nectocaris, shows a rather sudden divergence from this shelled creature to a non-shelled one. While scientists have been debating for the last 30 years what this fossil really means for cephalopods, it does cast doubt on the idea that they evolved like other animals.
Smartest of the Invertebrates
In addition to how they potentially evolved (or not), the modern octopus’ traits set it apart from any other animal. Octopuses have one centralized brain and the rest is distributed through each arm. In terms of brain-to-body ratio (a factor helpful in determining intelligence) the octopus has the largest ratio of any invertebrate.
This intelligence goes far beyond simply moving through mazes or opening jars. Octopuses are some of the only invertebrates to use tools. They can wield external weapons, such as the way the blanket octopus carries tentacles from the Portuguese man o’ war. And they hunt collaboratively with other species, sometimes having to give their fish partners a good punch to keep them in line.
Loads of Personality
Not only are they smart, they’ve got personality and exhibit eerily human traits. Octopuses are often mischievous, such as this octopus that climbed out of its tank to give visitors a more personal greeting. There’s also Inky the octopus, who infamously escaped the National Aquarium of New Zealand in the dead of night by opening his own tank and slipping through a drain in the floor which led to the ocean. Other octopuses have been reported spitting jets of water to short out aquarium lights that were bothering them and even sneaking into other tanks for a midnight snack.
Perhaps the most alien part of an octopus is something we can’t even see. In their efforts to map the genomes of the entire animal kingdom, scientists have discovered some interesting facts. For one, the octopus has 33,000 protein-coding genes. As a comparison, humans have around 20,000. But despite its complexity (and therefore higher probability of mutation), octopus DNA has changed very little compared to the speed of change in other animals.
If DNA is what sets the instructions for life, RNA is what receives those messages and then makes things happen. Octopuses can bypass the need for genetic mutations and consciously give their RNA new instructions to alter their physiology pretty much immediately. While other species abandoned this ability hundreds of millions of years ago due to its overall detrimental effects, it seems this method is working out pretty well for the octopus.
In addition to their intelligence, personalities, and complex biology, some octopuses seem to exhibit other-worldly powers. Between 2008 and 2010, Paul the octopus was regularly asked to pick the winners of FIFA games. Out of 14 predictions, Paul was correct 12 times, an 85.7% accuracy rate.
Hollywood likes to jump on board with the space-octopus theory as well. Octopus-like aliens have been portrayed in movies such as Arrival and Men in Black. Even the recent documentary My Octopus Teacher draws a comparison between octopuses and the cosmic world.
So, Are Octopuses Aliens?
Despite all these amazing facts, it’s not truly likely they came from outer space. But the history of science is littered with rejected theories later proven true. (We’re looking at you Galileo.) And after all, many divers and ocean lovers who have encountered an octopus will tell you the experience was other-worldly. Aliens or not, we should all show our appreciation for the octopus.
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Written by Jeanette Smith
This content was originally published here.