SALT LAKE CITY — TikTok user Kaylin Phillips, while on vacation with some friends in Bali, recently posted her story of unknowingly encountering, capturing and handling one of the most venomous animals in the world: the blue-ringed octopus.
Their experience, which went viral this month on the social media app, merits the discussion about our relationship with wild animals, octopus or not — if only to discourage others from making the same life-threatening mistake.
What's a blue-ringed octopus?
Let's lay a basic foundation with a quick bio on the blue-ringed octopus. The term "blue-ringed octopus" is a genus and not an individual species. A number of characteristics are shared among this group of aquatic predators making them easy to identify, the Australian government notes.
The term blue-ringed refers to a unique array of warning signals which manifest as pulsing, iridescent blue rings and markings on the animal's skin. They are also tiny. Adults max out around 10 centimeters or three inches in length. Finally, they are among the most venomous animals on the planet, employing an extremely potent and fast-acting tetrodotoxin that blocks nerves from transmitting signals.
It's estimated that a single blue-ringed octopus could kill more than 20 adult humans, according to the Ocean Conservancy. The danger inherent in the video of handling of this tiny creature is brought into even starker relief when you consider that experts say a bite from a blue-ring octopus is usually completely painless.
Had the octopus taken a bite, the result would have likely induced nausea, vision loss, and paralysis, including paralysis of muscles needed to breathe. In short, Phillips and her friends lucked out big time.
5 lessons from the video
Thanks to modern technology, there's an opportunity to learn from this misstep. Here are five lessons from this video.
1. Do not disturb wildlife
Year after year, the news is filled with stories of naive or outright foolish travelers who seemingly can't help but harass wildlife — sometimes with tragic results.
The practice of getting too close to wild animals to satisfy curiosity or in order to capture a picture has become tragically commonplace. In September while touring Yellowstone National Park, I had to repeatedly warn several individuals to stay in their cars and not pursue an injured grizzly bear. Reactions ranged from gratitude to annoyance.
The truth is that most modern humans have little access to — and experience with — wildlife outside the occasional documentary or a chance encounter. Unsurprisingly, it's not uncommon for people when encountering wildlife to let enthusiasm overpower reason resulting in potentially perilous encounters with wild animals.
Even for avid outdoorspeople, it's admittedly difficult to know how to react responsibly to every wildlife encounter. The solution is to keep things simple by following these basic rules: Do not approach, feed, harass or attempt to capture or interact with any wild animal. Period.
Give wild animals plenty of space.
Do it for your wellbeing and theirs. If you follow these simple guidelines, you will have mastered 99% of wildlife safety.
2. Our nature firmware needs a serious update
Popular media and conventional wisdom suggest that animals with fangs, claws, scales, and spikes are dangerous and that soft, plush, round, and adorable animals are not. If you intend to spend much time in the outdoors, do yourself a huge favor and reject this myth outright.
In North America, sharks, snakes, spiders, bears, and wolves aren't half as deadly as many "cute" animals like cows, horses, and domestic dogs.
Phillips said in an interview with Inside Edition that she thought she had captured a harmless baby octopus, not a highly venomous adult that was quite capable of killing her and her friends several times over. Please don't fall for this trope by judging wildlife based on their "cuteness" or "scariness."
It's impossible to estimate how safe, useful, valuable or dangerous an animal is by its appearance. You've heard that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, right? It's an old lesson that's every bit as relevant with wildlife as it is with people.
3. Wild animals are not interested in harming humans
There's a tendency, driven largely by unfamiliarity with nature and media-driven hysteria, to assume anything with fangs, claws, venom, or scales is "out to get you". Recall last year's "murder hornet" coverage or practically every time wolves appear in movies.
Reality is well illustrated by the highly venomous 3-inch octopus in Phillips' TikTok video. Wild animals are not driven by a desire to harm humans. They just want to be left alone.
Unprovoked bites or attacks by wild animals are exceedingly rare; and even when provoked, wild animals will almost always flee rather than attack unless habituated to humans, protecting young, or unable to escape. Still, remember the first lesson: leave wild animals alone.
4. Even incredibly venomous animals have no real defense against humans
Since the video was posted online, media outlets across the globe are already baiting readers by calling the blue-ring octopus "one of the world's deadliest creatures" despite the fact that only a handful of people are known to have died from a bite by a blue-ringed octopus. Though Phillips may have easily suffered a deadly bite, the incredibly venomous blue-ringed octopus is anything but one of "the world's deadliest animals."
Venom, unlike poison, is predominantly a predatory mechanism, and as such is a defensive option of last resort. Envenomation by the blue-ringed octopus can take between several minutes and a day to kill a large animal like a human.
Biting is quite literally the last defensive option venomous animals have and, as far as self-preservation goes, it's not great. A venomous animal choosing to bite is roughly equivalent to saying, "if I'm going down, I'm taking you with me." Phillips and her friends are fortunate the octopus never exercised its final option.
5. We need to do much, much better
There's great irony in calling an animal that is only known to have killed three people "one of the world's deadliest creatures." And not just because the blue-ringed octopus has claimed so few lives, but because humans are far and away the deadliest creatures on the planet. Traffic fatalities alone claim far more human lives worldwide than even the world's deadliest animal: the mosquito, which claims as many as one million lives a year globally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If you add deaths due to violent crime or armed conflicts, then the disparity becomes even more exaggerated.
Measuring deadliness in terms of human fatalities is more than enough to bring a little perspective to the discussion of which creature is the world's "deadliest," but in truth, there is much more to this story. Pay special notice that one of Phillips' friends so quickly suggested eating the octopus in an extended version of the video given to Inside Edition. He illustrates the troubling speed and ease with which some humans so often devalue or take life unnecessarily, not to mention the poor decision that would be in this case.
It is estimated that since the 16th-century humans have driven 680 vertebrate species to extinction and that 25% of mammals, more than 40% of amphibians, one-third of the world's shark species, and 25% of all plant species are threatened with extinction, NBC News reported in 2019. Humans are estimated to be driving wildlife to oblivion at up to 10,000 times the natural rate, according to National Geographic.
Not only are individual species being lost, but so too are the natural systems that we humans depend on. Phillips' friend may have inadvertently illustrated our fate if we fail to preserve and restore the natural systems that we depend on for life, water, food and breath.
Prioritizing the health of the natural systems by limiting our impact on nature and valuing and preserving the world's diversity of life is not misguided idealism, it is self-preservation.
It's remarkable what an encounter with a tiny octopus can teach us. Did I mention that octopus venom, like the venom of snakes and spiders, is being used in the treatments of cancers, allergies, pain relief and more? Imagine what we might lose, if we continue to threaten and devalue the populations of these species.