Spotlight on Science Writers: Sy Montgomery

Image - spotlight150.pngA select group of authors who have won or been finalists for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books have been invited to write or record an introduction to one of their books. We have suggested a few guidelines, but the format and content have been chosen by each author and will be appropriate for their book's intended audience. Science NetLinks will include related classroom resources appropriate for students and educators at the end of each Spotlight on Science Writers post. You can read all the posts in this series here.

Octopus ScientistsSy Montgomery on The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk:

My life changed when I plunged my arms into 560 gallons of 47-degree salt water, to be covered with the grasping suckers of a Giant Pacific octopus.

Her name was Athena. I met her at the New England Aquarium when I went behind the scenes and an acquarist opened the lid to her tank. She turned bright red with excitement and flowed over to get a closer look at me. "May I touch her?" I asked the keeper. When I plunged in my arms into her tank, her arms boiled up out of the water, reaching for mine.

Thus began my octopus odyssey—a three-year project that lead to close friendships with several different captive octopuses, inspired me to learn to SCUBA, drew me to meet wild octopuses in Mexico and the South Pacific, and resulted in two books. One of them is THE OCTOPUS SCIENTISTS.

Befriending captive octopuses was thrilling and surprising. Each had an individual personality, like humans do. Athena was feisty. Octavia was standoffish at first, but became a steadfast friend. Kali was playful and mischievous. Karma was joyful and exceptionally pretty. Each learned to recognize me and enjoy my visits. How do I know? Each would rise to the top of the tank to greet me, turning color with emotion, and greet me by kissing and hugging me with their suckers—tasting me at the same time! (Octopuses can taste with all their skin, but the suckers are particularly sensitive.) They didn't do this with everyone. It's well known that just like people, octopuses like some folks and dislike others. They move away from those they dislike. And sometimes they also blast them with cold water from their siphons.

Getting to know these octopuses at the New England Aquarium made me want to know more about their wild brethren. Sometimes animals behave very differently in captivity than they do in the wild. At the aquarium, the octopuses I knew were curious and smart. They loved to play with puzzles and toys. They enjoyed interacting with people. Sometimes they played tricks on us. One, Octavia, once stole a bucket of fish right from under our noses—when no fewer than six people were watching her! We didn't even realize it had happened till we went to give her another fish and found the bucket, which we'd left at the lip of her tank, was gone—hidden in the webbing between her arms.

How did octopuses behave in the wild? I longed to find out. I read books and scientific papers about them. I went to a conference about octopuses. There I met Dr. Jennifer Mather. She is a psychologist who studies octopuses both in the wild and in captivity. Jennifer invited me to join an expedition of experts studying the Pacific Day Octopus off the French Polynesian island of Moorea. The team included Dr. David Scheel, an Alaskan professor who specializes in Giant Pacific octopus; Dr. Tatiana Leite, a Brazilian researcher who has discovered an entirely new species of octopus off her native country; Keely Langford, a sharp-eyed interpreter at the Vancover Aquarium; and me and a photographer, Keith Ellenbogen. Our work together as a team, studying the mysteries of this beautiful and elusive animal, are chronicled in both of my books, but the book for young readers looks exclusively at this expedition—and is filled with dozens of Keith's gorgeous underwater photographs.

My experience with the wild octopuses was very different from working with the captive animals who were my friends. First, we humans were completely underwater, in the octopuses' element. We wore masks and fins. I had to take notes on an underwater dive slate and breathe through a snorkel. We worked in shallow water, and the surge of the waves kept making us smack into the spikey tops of dead coral. Pine cone-like water weeds slapped us in the face. As if that weren't difficult enough, the octopuses were extremely difficult to even find, much less watch! Octopuses are experts at camouflage, since they can change color and shape. Boneless, they can pour themselves into tiny holes to hide from us. Which they did.

But finally, toward the end of the expedition, came a day I'll never forget. David found an exceptionally bold octopus out hunting for food—and she (we could tell it was female by looking at the third right arm—only females have suckers all the way to the end) allowed us to come along! We watched her change color. We watched her probe crevices with her bendy, slippery arms. We saw her change shape. She didn't seem to mind having us as her guests at all. In fact, she seemed as curious about us as we were about her. At one point, this wild, bold octopus even reached out an arm and touched me!

Sy Montgomery and a cheetah. Photo Credit: Nic Bishop.Sy Montgomery is a naturalist, author, documentary scriptwriter, and radio commentator who writes for children as well as adults. Among her award-winning books are Journey of the Pink Dolphins, Spell of the Tiger, and Search for the Golden Moon Bear. She has made four trips to Peru and Brazil to study the pink dolphins of the Amazon; and on other expeditions, she was chased by an angry silverback gorilla in Zaire; bitten by a vampire bat in Costa Rica; undressed by an orangutan in Borneo; and hunted by a tiger in India. She also worked in a pit crawling with eighteen thousand snakes in Manitoba. Her latest book for adults, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award.

Her book, The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk, was the winner of the 2016 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books in the Middle School Science Book category.

Photo Credit: Nic Bishop.



  • In the accompanying Science NetLinks lesson, students refine basic to mid-level concepts of scientific research and critical thinking skills using The Octopus Scientists for examples.
  • You can find the educator's guide (PDF) to this book from the publisher, Simon & Schuster.
  • If you have students who are comfortable with a longer, slightly more advanced text, Sy's other book on octopuses is The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the World of Consciousness, a finalist for the 2016 young adult category of the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. You can find a reader's guide (PDF) at Simon & Schuster.
  • Discovery Education has a middle-school lesson plan called The Amazing Octopus focusing on camouflage that would complement study of The Octopus Scientists.
  • Sy gave a talk about octopuses at the New England Aquarium. It runs nearly an hour.
  • She also covers some of the same material in her shorter TED Talk on "Do Animals Think and Feel?"
  • She wrote a piece on octopuses for Orion Magazine called "Deep Intellect."
  • This Science NetLinks lesson on one of Sy's other books, Temple Grandin, accompanies the book and focuses on the work of Temple Grandin and about being different and thinking differently.
  • In this Science Update podcast on Seashell Design, students can listen to scientists studying other types of mollusks and the structure of their seashells to design stronger materials.
  • Students who are interested in cephalopods may find this Science NetLinks fact on squid eyeballs interesting.
  • In the Science NetLinks lesson Marine Sanctuaries, students develop an understanding of diverse marine ecosystems and the problems they face.


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