Biology Questions after Octopus Bites Woman on Face During Photo Pose

octopus's venomous beak stings fisher outside seattle

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

An octopus bit a Washington woman’s face while she handled it to pose for a photo, Seattle news station KIRO-7 reported. Jamie Bisceglia was hospitalized after she balanced the creature on her face and it rammed its venomous beak into her chin. Cephalopods are a dangerous marine wonder.

Octopus on sand background
The octopus belongs to the cephalopod species of the molluscan class, which also includes squid, cuttlefish, and nautilus. Photo by Andrea Izzotti / Shutterstock

Last week, according to KIRO-7, Seattle-area fishing enthusiast Jamie Bisceglia was participating in a fishing derby in the Tacoma Narrows when she saw two fishermen who had caught a live octopus. Believing it would be a shoo-in for a photo contest the fishing derby held, she asked to handle the octopus herself and get a picture of it clinging to her face. Bisceglia said it rammed its beakwhich some species of octopus have for breaking and eating crabs, the news article reportedinto her chin and injected her with venom. She continued fishing for two days before heading to the emergency room. Cephalopod species offer countless surprises and wonders. Unfortunately, some are dangerous.

What Makes a Cephalopod?

The octopus, like many other swimming sea creatures, is a cephalopod, which is an invertebrate creature. Why study invertebrates over other groups of sea life? “The earliest [group] and most adapted over the longest period of time in the ocean is certainly the invertebrates,” said Dr. Harold J. Tobin, Professor of Geoscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Larger invertebrates, for the most part, are represented by cephalopodscertainly the most successful group of invertebrates. They’re mollusks that actively swim, so that includes the squid, octopus, and what’s called the nautilus.”

Of course, the octopus has eight legs, the squid generally has a spear-shaped head for aerodynamic purposes, and the nautilus has a spiral-shaped shell. But if they’re so diverse, what makes them all cephalopods? “All of them are called cephalopods because they have this body plan that includes these tentacles or this sort of foot that is coming directly off the head of this organism,” Dr. Tobin said. “They have a very decentralized nervous system that includes parts of what we might think of as a brain sort of distributed throughout each of the individual tentacles or feet as well as into a nervous system that includes the head.”

About Face

Cephalopods don’t swim in the same sense that fish, eels, or even humans do, but they travel about the ocean quite well in different ways. “They have a body or mantle that they primarily move around by jetting water out of jets, so they’re basically jet-propelled,” Dr. Tobin said. This jet propulsion is a different kind of swimming, but it works well for them, enabling rapid changes of direction when needed. The nautilus has such little body area that’s exposed to the water that it must swim backwards while looking for food.

“They feed very efficiently by using, of course, those tentacles to capture prey and move it into their mouth and move it into their gut,” Dr. Tobin said. “They have lots of other interesting adaptations, like the ink that is produced by squids and octopus to confuse prey and predators.”

Cephalopods may be evolutionary marvels, but their wonders may be lost on those who have wound up on the wrong end of those traits, like Jamie Bisceglia. Fortunately, she told KIRO-7 she would never put a live octopus on her face again.

Dr. Harold J. Tobin

Dr. Harold J. Tobin contributed to this article. Dr. Tobin is Professor of Geoscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He earned his B.S. in Geology and Geophysics from Yale University and his Ph.D. in Earth Sciences from the University of California, Santa Cruz.