Fact Check

Did an Octopus Throw a Spoiled Shrimp at Its Handler?

We call that a tale with a twist.

Published May 18, 2021

 (FLICKR / Steve Jurvetson)
Image courtesy of FLICKR / Steve Jurvetson
Claim:
After being fed a spoiled shrimp, an upset octopus escaped from its aquarium, walked down a hallway, then threw the spoiled shrimp at its handler.
Context

There doesn't appear to be any evidence to support this viral story, although it is somewhat similar to an anecdote about an octopus stuffing a spoiled shrimp down a drain, which was relayed by biologist Jean Boal in a 2002 book.

In 2013, a Tumblr user responded to an animated GIF of an octopus escaping an enclosure through a narrow hole by describing an anecdote they had heard from a friend about how a disgruntled octopus once threw a spoiled shrimp at its handler:

My buddy read an article about octopus intelligence. It was feeding time, and the handler dumped some shrimp into an octopus’ tank. Then he went into another room and sat at his desk.

A while later, a shrimp was tossed onto his desk.

The octopus, upon finding one bad shrimp in the lot, had grabbed it, escaped its tank, crossed the hall, and threw the expired shrimp at its caretaker. Not only does this showcase their problem-solving capabilities, but also that it could have escaped at any time. It just broke out this time to chuck an off shrimp in indignation at its handler. That’s not just intelligence, that’s a human-like reaction. Kinda make you wonder exactly how smart these guys can be…

The user included the following video in the comment:

https://youtu.be/949eYdEz3Es

Although the video is real (it was filmed by a marine biology student named Raymond Deckel at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences in 2012), we have not found any evidence to support the viral anecdote that accompanies it.

This Tumblr post begins with a bit of a red flag in terms of plausibility as this Tumblr user states that they are relaying a story that they were told by a friend who supposedly heard about it when reading an article. As anyone who has played a game of Telephone can understand, the original message can get lost in translation as it passes from one speaker to the next. In fact, this anecdote has evolved a bit as it has circulated online. Here's a 2019 Reddit post in which the "shrimp" changes to a "fish":

Obligatory "not aquarium staff but," I've heard loads of stories about octopus and cuttlefish where a worker fed them some kind of food they didn't like/not prepared the way they liked it and afterwards every time that person walked by the tank the animal would squirt water in their face. I think there was one where the octopus actively climbed out of the tank, found the person down the hall, and threw the fish or whatever at them because they hadn't cut the head off the way it liked.

This viral anecdote is also sorely lacking in details. When did this incident take place? At what aquarium? What was the handler's name? What type of octopus?

Despite the fact that this anecdote was presented without any evidence in the comments of a Tumblr page in 2013, this piece of octopus lore has continued to circulate on social media. In 2021, eight years after this comment was originally posted, this anecdote was still being shared on social media sites such as Facebook and iFunny.

Culum Brown, a professor with the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University in Australia, told us that he had never heard this anecdote and that he finds it "unlikely in the extreme":

I've not heard about it and it doesn't sound plausible to me. I can imagine an octopus rejecting an off shrimp. I can imagine one escaping and possibly showing up in someone's office. But the tossing of the shrimp at the handler seems unlikely in the extreme.

Dr. Jenny Hofmeister, an Environmental Scientist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife who posts on social media under the @Dr_Octopod handle, also told us that this story wasn't credible. Hofmeister said that while it was plausible that an octopus would reject food, and that it was possible that an octopus would escape its tank, it was highly unlikely that an octopus would seek down its caretaker to hurl a shrimp at them in an act of spite.

I find this viral story of an octopus crawling down a hallway to throw a spoiled shrimp at a handler highly improbable. Octopuses frequently escape from their tanks (this is not controversial and has endless documentation; I, myself, have witnessed this on at least a dozen occasions). Octopuses also can be pretty picky about their food; they often only eat live prey (though I know many aquarists who successfully feed frozen/dead food items to their octopuses). Some octopus species will clean up a den area by placing prey remains (clam shells, shrimp carapaces, etc.) in a pile outside or near their dens. It seems like this viral story took that original story from that 2002 book, and combined/mixed it up with all these other behaviors an octopus is capable of to create one highly unlikely tale.

When we tried to trace this tale back to its origins (what article did this friend supposedly read?), we found a similar anecdote in the 2002 book "The Octopus and the Orangutan: More True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity" by Eugene Linden.

Linden wrote about one experience of Jean Boal, a biologist specializing in octopus behavior at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, while feeding a group of California mud flat octopuses (note: Boal's surname was misspelled "Baul" in the published version of this passage):

Octopuses are sticklers for fresh food, and one day Jean remembers that she was feeding a group of California mud flat octopuses (binaculoides) a meal of squid and shrimp. The food was a little past its peak of freshness. She would give each animal its first portion of food, and then go back to the beginning of the line of tanks to give them a second serving. When she got back to the first tank, a female octopus was waiting at the front of the tank. At this point, Jean says the octopus made eye contact with her while taking the piece of shrimp in one of her tentacles. Maintaining eye contact all the while, she then crawled over to the drain at the bottom of the tank and unceremoniously shoved the offending meal in the opening, where it was carried away. What makes the story so funny and arresting is the eye contact and the dexterity that enabled the animal to hold the spoiled shrimp while she slithered across the bottom of the tank. There is something about eye signals and manual dexterity that suggests intelligent behavior.

The degree to which scientists succeed or fail in coming up with plausible explanations of what an animal is doing when it appears to demonstrate awareness or some other higher mental ability is primarily an issue for science, not an issue for the animals in question (although it has some bearing on animals simply because we tend to be nicer to creatures we deem intelligent — perhaps this explains why we humans tend to be so stingy in acknowledging intelligence in other animals). The octopus that snubbed Jean Baul’s spoiled shrimp was either making a statement or it was not. While totally outside the scope of any investigation of octopus intelligence, such anecdotes are important because they remind scientists and others that animals have lives outside out experiments and theorizing. They are also important because they occasionally jolt a scientists into putting aside blinkered expectations that come with years of exposure to conventional wisdom on how to look for intelligence, and in which animals.

Several other anecdotes seemingly show the intelligence of the octopus (none, however, appear to involve an octopus escaping its tank to track down its handler and throw a spoiled a shrimp at them). An octopus named Otto at the Sea Star Aquarium in Germany, for example, would cause power outages by squirting water at the lights.

The aquarium's director Elfriede Kummer talked to reporter Andrea Seabrook on NPR's "All Things Considered" about Otto the octopus:

SEABROOK: Elfriede Kummer is the aquarium's director. One recent night, she says, the aquarium's whole electrical system shorted out. They fixed it in the morning, but the next night it happened again. Then again.

Ms. ELFRIEDE KUMMER (Director, Sea Star Aquarium, Germany): Every day for like two or three days, when you get into the aquarium, you know, it's just silent. Nothing is working. And on the third day, we just had to know what was happening, what is going on.

SEABROOK: So, a few of the staff decided to spend the night at the aquarium, waiting and watching. And what they saw - nothing.

Ms. KUMMER: But in the morning, I turned it on, and saw that our octopus, Otto, was just shooting water at his lights.

SEABROOK: Otto the Octopus, the six-month-old rabble-rouser, had climbed up the side of his tank and was squirting water at the 2,000-watt spotlight overhead. It turns out the aquarium staff had trained Otto to aim and squirt water, but at visitors, not at the lights. Otto himself had made the connection between turning out the lights and causing a commotion.

In sum: There doesn't appear to be any available evidence to support the claim that an octopus once escaped its tank, crawled down a hallway, and threw a spoiled shrimp in disgust at its handler. This viral anecdote appears to be an exaggerated version of an anecdote in which an octopus stuffed a shrimp down a drain that was relayed by a biologist in a 2002 book about animal intelligence.

Updates

Updated [18 May 2021]: Article updated from Unproven to False after consulting a marine biologist.

Dan Evon is a former writer for Snopes.