See Inside October 2010

Sensational Sucker: The Neural Complexity of the Octopus Organ

The octopus sucker can feel, taste, grip, manipulate—and act of its own accord


At first glance, an octopus’s sucker looks like the simple suction cup that tips a toy dart or affixes a GPS to the windshield. In fact, it is a remarkably sophisticated organ that not only can attach to objects with varying degrees of force but also can maneuver them, thanks to specialized muscle groups.

The sucker has two chambers: the outer infun­dibu­lum and inner acetabulum. When it attaches to an object—a tasty clam, for instance—the muscles of the infundibulum reshape the sucker rim to conform to the shell surface, forming a seal. The muscles of the acetabulum then contract, producing intense negative pressure inside the water-filled interior of the sucker relative to the external seawater. This pressure differential generates suction. The more the muscles of the acetabulum contract, the higher the negative pressure and the firmer the sucker’s grip. So-called extrinsic muscles, meanwhile, permit the sucker rim to rotate the object in a full circle at a shallow or steep angle to the arm without breaking the seal or reducing the pressure differential.

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