Friday Cephalopod: All we’re missing is the spinach

I was reading this account of an encounter between three cuttlefish — a consort male escorting a female, who is challenged by an intruder — and the story was weirdly familiar.

The intruder’s pupil dilation and arm extension began the first of three brief bouts over the course of about four minutes, each with escalating levels of aggression. The consort male met the initial insult with his own arm extension and — as only color-changing animals like cuttlefish can do — a darkening of his face. Then both males flashed brightly contrasting zebra-like bands on their skin, heightening the war of displays further.

Bout number one would go to the intruder as the consort became alarmed, darkened his whole body, squirted a cloud of ink in the intruder’s face and jetted away.

For more than a minute, the intruder male tried to guard and cozy up to the female, but the consort male returned to try to reclaim his position with a newly darkened face and zebra banding. He inked and jetted around the pair to find an angle to intervene, but the intruder fended him off with more aggressive gestures including swiping at him with that fourth arm. Bout number two again went to the intruder.

Then the intruder crossed a line.

He grabbed the female and tried to position her body to engage in head-to-head mating, but she didn’t exhibit much interest, Allen said.

The intruder’s act brought the consort male charging back into the fray with the greatest aggression yet. He grabbed the intruder and twisted him around in a barrel roll three times, the most aggressive gesture in the cuttlefish arsenal. He also bit the other male. The female, meanwhile, swam out of the fracas.

The intruder fled, chased off by the victorious consort male. Study co-author Roger Hanlon, Brown University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., moments later observed and filmed the consort swimming with the female. Allen was affiliated with the Brown-MBL Joint Program in Biological and Environmental Sciences while Akkaynak was studying in a joint Massachusetts Institute of Technology-Woods Hole Oceanagraphic Institute graduate program.

“Male 1 wins the whole thing because we saw him with the female later, and that’s really what matters,” Allen said. “It’s who ends up with her in the end.”

OMG, I thought, that is the plot of every Popeye cartoon ever. Popeye is strolling along with his goyl, Olive Oyl, when Brutus comes along and snatches her away, battering Popeye a few times in the process. Then Popeye makes a spinach-fueled comeback and beats up Brutus.

Read it again with that trope in mind. It’s uncanny.


  1. John Harshman says

    The name is Bluto. “Brutus” is a name assigned by the later, inferior, made-for-TV wave of Popeye cartoons.

  2. sayke says

    I bet there are Nice Guys out there on the internet, furiously masturbating to this story, tears streaming down their faces.

  3. dhabecker says

    Is there a reason this post came after the last one? Sexual assault was in our cartoons as children.

  4. cartomancer says

    John Harshman, #1

    I suspect PZ is getting the cartoon character confused with the prominent political figure of hs childhood…

  5. says

    Here’s the Straight Dope on the Bluto/Brutus question. Basically, when King Features decided to make Popeye TV cartoons they thought, erroneously, that Paramount Pictures had the rights to the Bluto character so they made up a replacement. The bottom line:

    “Brutus was only around for two years on screen. When Hanna-Barbera produced “The All-New Popeye Show” in 1978, the character’s name reverted back to the original Bluto. It remained so for the short-lived “Popeye and Son,” 1987-88. And, of course, the Robin Williams film “Popeye” it was Bluto, not Brutus. In print, Brutus lingered for some time, primarily under the direction of Segar apprentice Bud Sagendorf, who drew the strip, comic books, and designs for merchandise until 1986. Bill London, who took over from Sagendorf, preferred Bluto, but sometimes reverted back to Brutus, even within the confines of a single story (cf. “Witch Hunt,” 1992). Really, a fascinating tale, even if it is ultimately the result of boneheadedness. As an aside, most aficionados think of the King episodes as hastily thrown together, and inferior in quality to the earlier Fleischer (now Associated Artists Productions) films. In other words, if you’ve got a Brutus episode, it’s probably not the top-of-the line, but if you’re seeing Bluto, now that’s good watchin’! For further reading, see Popeye: An Illustrated History, by Fred Grandinetti, 1994. “

  6. gijoel says

    I always hear the Star Trek fighting music when I watch these nature documentaries.