Photograph courtesy National Aquarium of New Zealand
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Inky the octopus while he was still at the National Aquarium in New Zealand.

Photograph courtesy National Aquarium of New Zealand

Inky's Daring Escape Shows How Smart Octopuses Are

The fleeing of a mollusk from a New Zealand aquarium has captivated the world. Here’s how he did it, and what it means.  

An octopus at New Zealand's National Aquarium made a break for freedom by slipping out of its tank, slithering down a drainpipe and escaping into the ocean earlier this year.  

Inky, a male common New Zealand octopus, escaped his enclosure through a small opening. He slid across the floor during the night and squeezed his body through a narrow pipe leading to open waters.

“He was very inquisitive and liked to push boundaries,” says Rob Yarrell, the manager of the National Aquarium of New Zealand.

Yarrell and his team noticed Inky’s disappearance three months ago, and were able to figure out where their charge had disappeared overnight by following the wet trail he left behind. Inky had managed to move the lid to his enclosure, which he shared with another octopus.

Although not fully grown, Inky had reached adult size, says Yarrell. Inky’s story has been trending worldwide since his escape became public knowledge, which surprised staff at the Aquarium.

“We did not expect that much interest at all from around the world, we thought it was just a story for the locals, but it has received a lot of attention,” says Yarrell.

Inky had been donated to the National Aquarium in Napier in 2014 by fishermen who caught him on Pania Reef. He came in quite battle-worn and scarred from fighting fish. He quickly became a favorite with staff because of his engaging and curious nature.

“I don’t think he was unhappy with us, or lonely, as octopus are solitary creatures,” Yarrell said in a press release. “But he is such a curious boy. He would want to know what’s happening on the outside. That’s just his personality.”

James Wood, a marine biologist and webmaster of The Cephalopod Page, is not surprised by Inky’s antics. In his many years of working with octopuses, he has seen many a great escape.

Octopus Escape Talk about morphing—a 600-pound (272-kilogram) octopus shape-shifts itself to wriggle through a passageway the size of a quarter!    

“None of this is surprising or atypical of octopus behavior,” he says of Inky’s successful break out. “Octopuses are amazing animals, they’re very intelligent.”

Wood has known octopuses that have broken out of sealed observation containers and closed aquariums; some—like an octopus in Bermuda—escaped multiple times to eat the inhabitants of nearby aquariums. Others, like Inky, just made a run for the nearest water bodies.

As for how these intelligent creatures figure out an escape plan so quickly, Wood says that they are “active, curious and they engage with their environments.” They learn quickly, often observing where food is coming from. They can squeeze through small openings because of their soft, boneless bodies.

Octopuses have some of the most remarkable brains in nature—they are not only great escape artists, but are also curious, can develop unique personalities, and have been known to recognize individual faces.

“Behavior like Inky’s is described as sneaky,” says Wood. “But it’s just an octopus being an octopus.”

The National Aquarium has no plans to replace Inky at the moment, says Yarrell. “We’ll miss him, but we hope he does well in his new life.”