Anchorage professor behind viral video of octopus seemingly dreaming
A professor at Alaska Pacific University is the star of a new PBS documentary called Octopus: Making Contact.
David Scheel, who has a doctorate in ecology, is a professor of marine biology and has been studying octopuses for 25 years.
The film is part of the network's award-winning NATURE series, and it's fascinated the world with one scene in particular: a moment when Heidi, the octopus, begins rapidly changing colors while her markings also change pattern.
"She’s sleeping," Scheel explained. But she might be doing more than that.
"Some of those body patterns that you see in this sequence are the same body patterns that would show up when an animal was hunting," Scheel said.
That led Scheel to the hypothesis that Heidi's body might be responding to something happening in a dream. Perhaps Heidi was dreaming about hunting a crab, Scheel says, and her body was acting as if she actually was. "If she's dreaming, that's the dream," Scheel told PBS producers.
"I took a stab at making a story out of it to see whether it seems consistent with that that was going on," Scheel said.
Scheel knows Heidi better than anyone. The Hawaiian octopus lived with Scheel and his family in their home — inside a specially adapted aquarium.
"Over the first few days she was actually fairly shy. We started referring to her as a somewhat hidey octopus — that is, one who likes to hide," Scheel told BBC's Outlook podcast. "And so, that became her name: Heidi."
Scheel’s goal was to be able to study Heidi's behavior around the clock. Over time, Scheel's teenage daughter Laurel and Heidi seemed to develop a special bond.
"Laurel was her primary caretaker, so she got to really bond with the animal and get to know her a lot," Scheel said.
Sadly for Scheel’s family, Heidi has died since the film was produced. Octopuses like her only tend to live between one and two years. But Scheel hopes her life and participation in the project can help foster a curiosity in humans.
"What I hope this film has to offer to people is not so much a bunch of answers as a chance to explore and wonder and think about what kinds of connections humans have, not just to the animals we're used to interacting with, but to all of life," Scheel said.
On that note, he says, if Heidi was dreaming, it could have significance for humans.
"It seems to me if sleep is something that occurs throughout the animal kingdom — it's not something that just humans need; obviously dogs need it and octopuses need it — so it’s got very deep evolutionary roots," Scheel said. "It's probably worthwhile to try and understand a little bit more about not only what sleep does for humans, but also what sleep does for animals."
The full episode of Octopus: Making Contact is available for streaming through Oct. 31.
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