Octopuses Caught Punching Fish in What Could Be Pure Spite

Scientists also think there could be other reasons such as collaborative hunting.
Fabienne Lang
Octopus "punching" fishEduardo Sampaio/Twitter

It turns out that animals can act out in childlike behaviors, too. 

Scientists observed octopuses seemingly punching fish and believe it could be out of pure and simple spite. However, they also think there could be other reasons for such odd behavior.

This antisocial phenomenon is known as "active displacement" of fish and happens during collaborative hunts where fish and octopuses work together to snare prey. 

The team published its study in ESA Ecology on December 18. 


"Active displacement," when coming from an octopus, can seem a little pushy as it comes in the form of what we'd call a punch. But it could just be a method of working together, and with no other way to communicate, the octopuses "punch" the fish. 

"Octopuses and fish are known to hunt together, taking advantage of the other's morphology and hunting strategy," explained marine biologist Eduardo Sampaio from the University of Lisbon in Portugal. 

During their study, Sampaio and the team observed a number of different fish species in the Red Sea, including tailspot squirrelfish and blacktip groupers, and Octopus cyanea.

The team noted that observing different octopuses in different locations helped them understand that this behavior could "serve a concrete purpose in interspecific interactions."

Essentially, the punching is meant to keep the fish in line when hunting together with octopuses or gets rid of them when they're unwanted. 

That said, the scientists also observed that this movement wasn't always linked to hunting strategies. 

"In these cases, two different theoretical scenarios are possible. In the first one, benefits are disregarded entirely by the octopus, and punching is a spiteful behavior, used to impose a cost on the fish," wrote the scientists. 

"In the other theoretical scenario, punching may be a form of aggression with delayed benefits (i.e. direct negative reciprocity or punishment), [...] in an effort to promote collaborative behavior in the following interactions."

It's hard to know exactly why octopuses sometimes act this way, but if anything, it may be them venting their frustrations from a rather bleak 2020.

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