British Columbia

Battle of the beaks: Can an octopus take down an eagle? Experts disagree

We'll never know for sure which of these two animals would have prevailed if a fishing crew hadn't intervened, but talk to an octopus expert and a eagle expert and they're both rooting for their own beast.

It's definitely not normal to see an eagle in the grip of an octopus, but here's what could have happened next

Aquaculture employees found an octopus attacking a bald eagle in Quatsino Bay, B.C., off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, in December 2019. 0:54

Are you team octopus or team eagle? 

We'll never know for sure which of these two animals would have prevailed if a fishing crew hadn't intervened, but talk to an octopus expert and an eagle expert and they're both rooting for their own beast.

What is certain: seeing a bald eagle in the grip of a giant Pacific octopus is outside the normal behaviour for both animals, which is one reason the video of the encounter near Quatsino, B.C., spread around the world.

If anything, the eagle should have been eating the octopus.

Why the eagle could have escaped

This particular bald eagle was an experienced, mature adult, says Myles Lamont, a long-time birder and biologist with TerraFauna Wildlife.

"You can tell that because it has the full adult plummage ... that's the white head," he said, which he says bald eagles get after five years.

A bald eagle soars along the Squamish River in Brackendale, B.C. (Richard Lam/Canadian Press)

Lamont said bald eagles have been known to scavenge and eat small octopuses that can be found in the intertidal zone. He speculates the bald eagle was likely water-logged after diving down to capture some prey, and was swimming back to shore when the octopus came down from below and engulfed it.

"Eagles don't have webbed feet, but they can use their wings to sort of flap along," Lamont said.

"They were very close to the shore, maybe about 20 feet [six metres], so it could have probably got on land and shaken the octopus loose."

If the eagle was further away from the shore or unable to use its wings and talons, then he says the outcome might have been different.

How an octopus could make a meal of an eagle

Christine Martinello, who studies octopuses at the Vancouver Aquarium, says if the octopus was roughed up by the eagle's sharp talons or beak, it might have just let go of its eight-armed grip on the bird.

However, this particular octopus is also a capable predator in its own right. 

The giant Pacific octopus can be found all the way from Japan to Alaska and down the coast to Baja California in Mexico.

They usually live to around three to five years, and can weigh around 10 to 20 kilograms or more at full maturity. Martinello pegs this particular specimen to be an adult that is approximately two years old. 

They're fairly common in the waters off British Columbia, and are often found from the intertidal zone to depths of 100 metres or more.

"We see them typically at diving depths of 20 to 50 feet [six to nine metres]," she said. "It's a pretty rare event that you'd see an octopus on the surface like that."

Giant Pacific octopuses will typically eat crabs, shrimps, clams, and small fishes, but she says there have been a some documented cases of them also eating seagulls.

When hunting, the octopus will grab its prey with the arms that also come with 2,000 suction cups for extra grip. 

Then, it will bite the prey with its beak — a hard, parrot-like part of its mouth — injecting toxins that both paralyze the prey and begin to digest the flesh. It will then will usually return to its den to slowly eat the prey.

"The hard, rough tongue inside the beak bores a hole in the prey's shell to extract the flesh ... but I'm not sure how exactly it would manoeuvre around the feathers. I'm assuming its not the easiest thing," she said. 

"An eagle could only hold its breath underwater for so long, so it would likely drown," she said. 

"When we feed our octopus herring or a crab, we will usually see the leftover debris the next morning," she said.

"Food enters the esophagus and then can be stored in the crop until it is ready for digestion, so it really depends on how hungry the octopus is."

Despite the rather gruesome method of eating its prey, Martinello says octopuses are gentle animals that don't pose any danger to humans. 

Diver Natasha Dickinson shows surprise after a unique encounter with a giant Pacific octopus (Jackie Hildering)

"It's not a horrible monster that lives in our depths," she said. "If it bit you, it would probably hurt a bit and you could get away from it easily."

Fascination with animals

Whatever the outcome might have been without human intervention, the video has fascinated audiences globally and made international headlines. 

Ahmed Al-Rawi, who has studied social media videos, says this particular video has also the typical characteristics of viral videos — animals, an unusual event, and escapism. 

"We are emotionally engaged with animal stories, because they remind of us of ourselves on some level. And it's a way to escape from the politics and bad news that you often read."

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