Terrestrials: The Mastermind
Lulu Miller: Three. Two. [Whispering.] One.
Sy Montgomery: Imagine you are a liquid creature.
(A thumping dance beat plays. If it were playing through your speakers, you could feel it vibrate! Then, as if to join the party, a bucket of bubbles float past.)
Sy: No bones, and you are so pliable, you can literally pour your body through a tiny opening.
(Someone slurps through a straw over the music. Picture an octopus whizzing by!)
Lulu: You can change colors!
Sy: Blue and green and red and yellow, and even metallic!
(Sparkles shine by.)
Lulu: You can taste—with your skin.
Sy: And you have blue blood. And you have three hearts.
(A person pretends to make the sound of a heart beating: zha-zhoom, zha-zhoom, zha-zhoom.)
Sy: And if you're threatened—if you feel scared—you can shoot ink!
(Still over the music, the sound fwoo rushes by. That’s the ink.)
Lulu: Into a silhouette in the shape of you!
Sy: So the predator is fooled into believing you're still there.
Lulu: Now, look down at your arms and watch them slowly sprouting into eight.
Sy: (Quietly.) You are an octopus now.
(The music—and all the sounds that come with it—go down the drain!)
Lulu: Ok, now is where I make you sing the theme song with me.
(The theme song plays, and Lulu and Sy sing with it: “Terrestrials, terrestrials! We’re not the worst—we are the …” But then the song pauses and waits for Sy to say:)
Sy: (A little unsure.) Best-rials!
(Almost like it agrees, the song finishes with the same word: “Best-rials!”)
Lulu: (Excitedly.) You got it!
Sy: (Laughing.) I dunno, man.
Lulu: Terrestrials is a show where we uncover the strangeness waiting right here on Earth and, sometimes, break out into song.
(The rest of the theme song plays, and Lulu keeps singing with it: “There’s so much to discover when you dive down deep. Terrestrials, terrestrials! So come on and plunge into the sea! Terrestrials, terrestrials.” The song ends with a splash. Literally.)
Lulu: Good voices not required!
I am your host Lulu Miller, joined, as always, by my songbud—
Alan: Hoo hoo!
Alan Goffinski: (Using Autotune, Alan’s voice sounds like a computer, singing a bunch of chords all at once.) Hello everybody! (Sy laughs in response.)
Lulu: Today we’re joined by special guest Sy Montgomery who is gonna tell about a devious little octopus who outsmarted his human captors.
Sy: Hi Lulu!
Lulu: Um, what do you [Pausing to look for the right word.] do for a living? What is your job?
Sy: Um, I’m an author, and I write about animals.
Lulu: And what are some of the animals you've written about?
Sy: Oh boy …
(Bouncy, goofy music lets us know this is going to be a long list.)
Sy: Gorillas, tarantulas, garter snakes, wildebeests, pink dolphins in the Amazon, hyenas, orangutans, man-eating tigers. Um, of course I'm a woman, so I knew I was safe, but, um …
Lulu: Ba-dum-tsch! (Sy laughs at her own joke with Lulu.)
(A dolphin says “Ee-ee-ee!” and cuts the song off.)
Lulu: Alright. So let’s head out on this octopus journey, where does it all start?
Sy: Um, it was likely in 2014 …
(Waves wash in.)
Sy: Deep in the ocean off the coast of New Zealand.
Lulu: And a little baby octopus is born.
(A metallic sound rings out. We’re going underwater.)
Sy: … The size of a grain of rice.
Lulu: In a stretch of ocean called Hawk’s Bay.
(A marimba plays an echoey song, an orchestra under the waves.)
Sy: He hatched out with hundreds of other octopuses.
Lulu: And then he began floating away. Little grain of rice with eight little arms. Not so great at swimming, very low chance of surviving. Only able to eat whatever little scraps of tiny crustaceans and shrimp happen to come his way.
Sy: An octopus actually grows faster than almost any other animal. They could double their size in a matter of days.
(“Ruuurp” grows the octopus! Up and up!)
Lulu: So this little guy [“Ruuurp!”] is getting bigger [“Ruuurp!” again.] and longer [“Ruuurp!” one more time.] and heavier [Just kidding—“Ruuurp!” again, but lower this time.] and as he did, he started being able to eat …
Sy: Bigger things, like crabs and fish!
(The music fades out.)
Lulu: How does it catch—how does an octopus catch a crab? There's something so confusing about something so soft being able to catch something so sharp. I always think the crab would win.
Sy: Of course you think that.
(New music wanders all up and down a xylophone, curious and exploratory and a little magical.)
Lulu: Sy explained that, like thousands of people who came before me, I was assuming that because an octopus was a kind of creature called a mollusk—basically a lumpy bug in the same family as slugs and clams—it just couldn’t be all that brainy.
Sy: We don't think of clams as very, uh, “brainy,” ‘cause they don't have any. (Lulu laughs.)
Lulu: But all along, under their their slimy skin, unnoticed by humans, octopuses have had huge brains—brains so big they spill down into each of their arms and allow them to catch all kinds of things.
Sy: Oh, they'll eat fish. Um, they've been known to even eat sharks.
Lulu: (Unbelieving.) No!
Lulu: (Gently, but definitely, in shock.) Wow!
Sy: They will eat birds.
Lulu: (Almost whispering.) What?
(Another Alan song, this time with harmony, no instruments, and lots of snapping: “Let's take a break to consider that an octopus can eat a bird. Let’s take a break to consider that an octopus [Each word moving more slowly than the last.] can eat a bird!” Then, as the song ends, a human voice says “Tweet tweet!” before a splashing sound and then a distinct gulp.)
Lulu: How does an octopus catch a bird?
Sy: Well, you’ve got certain birds that float on the ocean. And when they’re doing that, their little feet are below the water.
Lulu: (Realizing what Sy means.) Oh no!
Sy: And that would be an opportunity for an octopus to reach up and grab them.
Lulu: And then what? Can you take me over home plate there, so they grab ‘em and pull ‘em in the water … ?
Sy: They grab them and they wrap them in their arms and …
Lulu: Hug ‘em! ’Til they …
Moving on. So our little octopus is now a few weeks old and he's getting better and better at hunting. But he also has to quickly master how to hide—
(A quick bit of musical punctuation signals a song is on its way.)
Lulu: —from the things that wanna eat him.
(The song arrives, a plinking, plunking synthesizer medley that echoes like it was recorded in an underwater cave.)
Lulu: Things like sharks, and whales and humans and other octopuses.
Sy: They will eat each other.
Lulu: So they’re—they’re cannibals, they'll eat each other?
Lulu: And …
Sy: The most dangerous predator to an octopus is a moray eel. Big, long green fish. They have two rows of teeth: Another row in their throat.
(As a keyboard plays a little flourish, accordions enter in, in an under-the-sea musical ballet.)
Lulu: So to hide in that giant clear ocean, our little red octopus can turn a deep purple, or white, or yellow so that it looks like …
Sy: A piece of coral or a bunch of algae or rock or the sea floor.
Lulu: And it can also—
Sy: —Turn into spots all of a sudden, or stripes, or they can stripe just one part of their body. Some octopuses even make themselves look like poisonous sea snakes!
Sy: Or poisonous flounders.
Lulu: They can grow horns.
Sy: Which, sometimes, can be two inches tall! They can even do a display called “passing cloud,” which … You know how when a cloud passes over something, it—it—it—it looks like, you know, a darkness sweeping across the land?
Sy: They can make a darkness sweep across their bodies.
Lulu: (Laughing.) What!?
Sy: And this confuses fish into believing—
Lulu: (A gasp!) Woah!
Sy: A bigger fish is swimming.
Lulu: (Guessing what Sy is about to say.) Is above them?
Lulu: That is so clever!
Sy: It's really great.
(The music plays one final flourish, and then out.)
Lulu: So our little octopus, his days are busy, as he’s practicing throwing punches with his arms [Fshoo-fshoo go the punches.], and changing colors, and flexing each of his hundreds of suckers, which have grown so strong they can [With a click of the tongue.] crack open clam shells. [A whispered “Snap!” opens a shell.]
And every now and then, he conks out to take a nap.
Sy: They also appear to dream because when they're sleeping, sometimes they change color.
(An atmosphere of calm and currents plays up.)
Lulu: Hmm. Hm!
Sy: The same way, you know, a puppy or kitten might [Lulu laughs at the thought—it’s goofy!] run in its sleep.
Sy: Or bark or meow in its sleep.
(The music shifts a little, becoming serious, less light.)
Lulu: And then one day as he's moving through the world, transforming into eels and clouds and sand, something [A pause.] attacks him.
(A tiny roar rings out. An animal attack!)
Lulu: It snaps off one of his arms.
(The octopus gives a tiny, high-pitched “Ow!”)
Lulu: And though he fights back with all seven of the other ones—
(The sounds of a struggle, not too intense, but quite tense, follow.)
Lulu: —whatever predator it is manages to gnaw—
(Another roar and another squeaking sound of pain.)
Lulu: —pieces out of a bunch of the others.
Sy: So this octopus was pretty beat up.
(The octopus gives a gentle “Oh, boy!”)
Lulu: But eventually he is able to wriggle away, and finds a spot to lay down and rest inside a mysterious metal box.
(Mysterious metal sounds come from the mysterious metal box.)
Lulu: The owner of that box appears—after this short break.
Lulu: We’re back!
(A fisherman makes a goofy little looping “Yo ho ho” noise.)
Lulu: Picture a lobsterman, in his boat …
(We must be out to sea! Seagulls caw as they fly around us.)
Lulu: Bobbing along the water. One morning he is pulling up lobster traps and what does he find inside but our little octopus.
(The fisherman seems confused: “Wrr?”)
Lulu: And while he could have sold him—for, like, 30 bucks—to a fish market, to someone who wanted to eat him, instead, he thought he'd bring the octopus to the aquarium.
The National Aquarium of New Zealand, they gladly take him in, plunk him in a tank. They give him the name “Inky”—because, like, ink? Inky?) And, by all accounts, he was a huge hit!
Sy: He was a total sweetie. [Lulu chuckles at the thought.] Um, he was a super friendly octopus. Everybody knew him. He delighted everybody.
(Alan and the backups launch into a new song, this one over a circus-y soundtrack: “Well step right up and see our little seven-armed squirmy little friend dance the seven legged cancan—“ The music halts, realizing just how many cans a seven-legged octopus would can if a seven-legged octopus could cancan, before picking back up: “Can-can-can-can-can! An amazing little creature, yes—a marvel in our midst—watch him dance his little hearts out with a kick-kick, kick-kick. Ha!” Then the music starts to fade down.)
Sy: So they had them in a tank and there was plenty for him to do. He had toys to play with.
Lulu: He was given a Mr. Potato Head doll and he would rearrange the eyes and ears. They gave him puzzles and locks to unlock.
And you were saying an octopus can even take thread and tie a knot?
Sy: It can also do what’s harder, and that is untie a knot.
Sy: Even though they don't have hands and they don't have fingers.
Lulu: But perhaps the most amazing feat was that this seven-armed octopus—or [Questioningly.] septipus—was that, eventually, he was able to …
Sy: Grow a new one!
(The song continues, “Watch him play and watch him swim and regenerate a missing limb. Come on and all, young and old—it’s quite a sight to behold!”)
Lulu: Month after month Inky lived out his life inside that tank: Changing colors and charming the aquarium keepers by playing with their toys, slowly growing healthier, those suckers regenerating and growing stronger and stronger until, about two years into his captivity …
Sy: One morning the keepers came in and Inky wasn't there!
(The music suddenly winds down.)
Sy: And they saw a slime track going from his tank eight feet across the floor, which led to a drain pipe. And this drain pipe was 164 feet long. And it dropped directly into Hawk’s Bay, which is where he came from!
So it looks like Inky went home.
(Soft marimba music plays over waves, signaling Inky’s journey home.)
Lulu: Wow. And no human has ever seen him again.
Newscaster 1: It is time now for the mix. This octopus, Inky, actually made a break for it.
Lulu: The world freaked out [Lulu laughs.] when they heard about Inky’s story.
Newscaster 2: Inky the octopus, making a break for it. Slipping out of a New Zealand Aquarium …
Newscaster 3: It’s the Shaw-tank Redemption…
Newscaster 1: (Over party music.) Inky is having a party right now!
Lulu: But Sy says the most incredible thing about Inky’s escape is that it's not incredible.
Sy: There are many, many instances of octopuses that have gotten out of their tanks.
Lulu: The more that Sy researched octopuses, the more she came across tales of amazing escapes.
There was the octopus that escaped out of a cigar box that was nailed shut, the octopus that leapt out of an ice tray at a fish market and crawled [Laughs lightly] back into the ocean. And, in aquariums …
Sy: There were so many accounts of octopuses that get out of their tank at night, eat the fish in the neighboring tank, and then return to their own tank.
Lulu: So—so they’re really like … This isn't, this—Inky is not fluke-y? Like, octopuses are sort of known for being escape artists when—when forced into captivity? Is that, like …
Sy: Yeah. Yes. And octopuses will climb out of the ocean!
Lulu: Really? And do what?
Sy: Oh, they just kind of walk around on land for a little while, and then they go back in.
Lulu: Are you serious?
Sy: They're looking for food or they’re—and there’s tons of videos of this. You should see it!
Lulu: And do they just—they walk on their legs? Like, do they walk on all eight, or … ? (Chuckles.)
Sy: Well, they kind of slime around. [Lulu laughs at the thought.] I mean, it's not particularly easy. And they don't go far, but they will spend time out of the water, looking for new things to eat or escaping predators.
Lulu: Or, as was recently observed, grabbing two halves of a coconut and bringing them together to [A click sound.] hide inside as a kind of coconut fort. (A clonk sound—the coconuts bumping against each other.)
(The music gives way to sound from a video: a child calling out to their dad.)
Lulu: And, as more and more videos of behavior like this have been captured around the world—
(More video audio: “That’s a pretty good-sized octopus, no?”)
Lulu: —Octopuses making tools or unlocking locks or catching eagles—
(“That’s nature at its best!” Father and child let out a chuckle of wonder.)
Lulu: —Videos sometimes filmed by kids just looking out at the water—
(More scattered conversation from the same video.)
Lulu: Scientists have come together and scratched their fancy scientist chins and largely agreed that they can’t deny it anymore. Octopuses are:
(Ringing notes overlap with one another, floating up and down so slowly, like jellyfish riding the current.)
Sy: It turns out that their intelligence is quite like ours in a way that their bodies are not, and that is surprising and delightful, that somebody who looks so unlike you and has senses so unlike yours …
Lulu: Can solve such similar problems.
Sy: That is mind-blowing!
(A moment with just music.)
Lulu: And while some people certainly noticed how amazing the octopus was long ago …
Sy: People in Mo’orea, which is part of Polynesia, were so impressed with octopuses, that they built a church with eight sides just to remind them of how special octopuses were. (Lulu reacts softly.)
Lulu: Sy thinks that scientists largely missed their intelligence … because of their intelligence.
(Xylophone music plays up, twinkling and bouncy, the soundtrack of exploration.)
Lulu: Octopuses were always darting out of our eyesight, [A sneaky sound—fwoo—plays as the octopus darts away.] flashing into whatever color hid them from us, and escaping our tanks when we were able to catch them—which made it hard to ever fully see them.
Sy: Oh, yeah.
Lulu: Oh, and one other reason.
(A pause for a breath.)
Sy: I think that most people who are looking for intelligence like ours, was looking for it and animals that were more like us. So we didn't look in the right place.
(Bubbles rush past alongside the music.)
Lulu: Before Sy could move onto her next animal—her next book—she knew she had to do one last thing. She wanted to touch an octopus. She had read an account by a famous scientist who described the feel of the octopuses’ slimy arms as one of the grossest things on Earth, like plunging your hand into a pit of snakes.
(The music ends with a rattle—and with Lulu saying “Eugh” in disgust.)
Lulu: But she wanted to find out for herself. So one morning, she showed up to the New England Aquarium, and was led to the tank which housed a giant Pacific octopus.
Sy: (Speaking with gentle wonder.) She was bright red …
Lulu: Five feet long.
Sy: And she was hiding in her lair.
Lulu: An aquarium worker named Scott popped the lid.
Sy: I saw her eye swivel in its socket and lock on mine. And then she came jetting out of there!
(A bright red octopus arm jumps out of the water, like air escaping from a balloon.)
Lulu: And she reached a few of her arms up over the edge of the tank.
Sy: And I asked Scott, “Can I touch her?” And he said, “Sure.” And so I plunged [A splash.] my hands and arms into the freezing cold water to meet the octopus. And instantly my flesh was covered with …
(The sound of suction—shoop, shoop, shoop, shoop—as Sy’s arm is covered with more and more suckers.)
Sy: Dozens of these soft suckers.
Lulu: Oof. ‘Kay …
Sy: And then I began to stroke her head, and I noticed that she was beginning to turn white beneath my touch, right where my fingers were.
And I later learned that that is a color of a relaxed octopus.
Sy: And that she was enjoying that.
(The music fades away slowly as Lulu speaks.)
Lulu: And when she was—as you were stroking her and, like, she was turning white where—what were her arms like? I'm picturing them just, like, coiled around your wrists, and was it disgusting? I mean, were they slithering and wrestling all around?
Sy: Well, they were all wrestling around. But it was like thousands of—of, well, not thousands, I guess—
(A drum beat starts, steady and heavy.)
Sy: —Under 2000, but, um … 1800 little kisses.
(Alan’s band is back with a ‘90s alt-rock-styled song, with electric guitars and all: “1800 little kisses, 1800 octopus kisses! 1800 octopus sucker kisses! I’m thinkin’ about all the octopus kissin’ we’ve been missing. 1800 little smooches, 1800 octopus hugs and smooches!”)
Lulu: Sing it, Alan!
(Alan continues: “1800 itty-bitty octopus sucker smooches! Why did it take so long to learn about this cuteness?”
A drum moment cuts out the rock guitars for just a second. “This friendly little octopus is smarter than we thought, and now we know to pucker up when they kiss us with their suction cups. It’s hard to understand a thing if we don’t give it a chance! If we didn’t search, we’d never learn about this funny mollusk romance.”
Lulu joins in as they take the song from the top. “1800 little kisses!”)
(Alan and Lulu are joined by a chorus of kids: “1800 octopus sucker kisses! I’m thinkin’ about all the octopus kissin’ we’ve been missing.” As they reach the end of the chorus, Lulu gives one last “Ducka ducka ducka” drum sound.)
Lulu: Alan Goffinski, everybody!
(Rock out! The song plays heavy guitar riffs as Lulu reads the credits.)
Lulu: Terrestrials was created by me, Lulu Miller, with WNYC Studios. It is produced by the INK-credible—ink-credible?—Ana Gonzales and Alan Goffinski, with … You know, me. With help from Suzie Lechtenberg, Sarah Sandbach, Natalia Ramirez, Diane Kelley, Joe Plourde and Sarita Bhatt. Sound design and additional editorial guidance by Mira Burt-Wintonic!
[Imitating a rock guitar.] Nee-nee-nee-nee-nee-nee-nee-nee-nee-nee-neee-nee-neee-nee-neew!
Our advisors are Theanne Griffith, Aliyah Elijah, Dominique Shabazz, John Green, Liza Steinberg-Demby, Tara Welty, and Alice Wong.
Terrestrials is supported in part by Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation.
Biggest thanks to Sy Montgomery! In addition to all her adult-y books, she has a beautiful picture book about Inky’s amazing escape called, uh … Inky’s Amazing Escape!
(The song ends!)
Lulu: And that’ll do it for the credits, ‘cause who keeps listening past the credits? There’s never gonna be anything—[An interrupting horn plays!] Woop! What’s that?!
(Vwoom vwoom vwoom: It’s the sound of the Badgers approaching!)
Mira Badgers: Excuse me, I have a question.
[A different voice.] Me too.
[One more!] Me three.
[Another one!] Me four!
Lulu: (In a raspy voice.) The Badgers!
(Funky little music plays up. Let’s go!)
Lulu: Listeners! With badgering questions … for the expert.
Okay, are you ready?
Ruby: Hi, my name is Ruby, and my question is: How many species of octopus are there?
Sy: Over two hundred.
Evangeline: Hello my named is Evangeline, and I was wondering: What is the biggest octopus ever found?
Sy: Six hundred pounds.
Leo: Hi, Lulu! My name is Leo. [Speaking French] Est-ce qu’une pieuvre mange des oeufs?
Lulu: Huh! [Saying the French word for “French”!] Francais!
Leo’s Parent: Can you say “Does …”?
Leo: (Translating from French to English with help from a grown-up.) Does …
Leo’s Parent: Does an octopus eat eggs?
Leo: “Does an octopus eat eggs?”
Sy: I think it would.
Clara: My name is Clara. What is one of the biggest mistakes you have ever made?
Sy: Well, just last week, I was working at the Turtle Rescue League and I was moving an old turtle. I lifted a turtle, my finger was too close to her mouth, and she bit me.
Elliot: Hi, my name is Elliot: Why do octopuses squirt their ink? Is it smelly? And can you write with it?
Sy: You can write with it, actually! I bet it is smelly to the predators that it bothers. It is chemically very complex. And some people even think that the ink actually drugs the predator into believing that they’ve already had enough to eat.
Lulu: So cool.
Teo: Hi! My name is Teo. Do their arms move in unison? Or can they move independently of each other?
Sy: Yes they can move independently of each other. And, in fact, if a predator bites off one of your arms, for a while, that arm can still go off and do stuff.
(The music changes. It becomes less funky, and more mystical, like a choir singing a soft song in space.)
Sy: It’s almost as though the animal has nine brains! And sometimes it appears the octopus has shy arms and some bold arms.
Lulu: (Laughs gently.) It’s, like, got different personalities!
Sy: (Speaking through a smile.) Yeah! Imagine that! What is that like? What is the self like if you have nine brains?
Lulu: Fabulous questions, badgers. Thank you. I’m gonna leave it here to let you ponder that little mind-bender. And i’m definitely not gonna tell you about the claims that octopuses, when eaten alive, have been said to crawl out of the throats of the whales, dolphins and occasionally humans [Coughs.] that try to consume them. I’m not gonna tell you that, ‘cause … I’m nice.
If you would like to badger our next expert, or suggest a topic for the show, visit our website at terrestrialspodcast.org! There are also all kinds of other goodies there, like drawing prompts and fun activities to engage more deeply with these stories.
Thank you for listening. Catch you in a couple spins of this old lumpy old planet of ours.
(A wooshing sound as the planet spins.)
(The music, now driven by a persistent beat, plays up and out, full of whimsy and wonder, as the episode comes to an end.)