“Punching,” per se, isn’t all that widespread in the animal kingdom beyond our own human fisticuffs. We suppose you could consider the swipes and cuffs of cats and bears to be “claw-punches” of sorts, and maybe the whacks and smacks of some of our primate kin loosely qualify, but honestly these feel like stretches. To find a closer pugilistic counterpart, it seems, we might just have to head seaward, and look outside the whole backboned box.

A new study in Ecology has shown that day octopuses in the Red Sea sometimes break out the old right hook (or whatever other hook among their eight options they feel like breaking out) when joining forces with reef fish on the hunt. Neatly summing up the findings, lead author Eduardo Sampaio wrote in a Twitter thread: “Octopuses punch fishes. YES. OCTOPUSES. PUNCH. FISHES!!”

And there’s footage to prove it:  

Video by Sampaio et al.

Interspecific hunting associations on coral and rocky reefs in the tropics and subtropics are well-known, and take advantage of the different predatory methods and purviews of the multiple participants. Fish such as groupers, goatfishes, and cornetfishes cruise along while thorough, nimble excavators of crevices and crannies, which may be moray eels, humphead wrasses, or – yes – octopuses, scour away. Small fish, crabs, and other prey flush out of those hideaways only to find themselves at the mercy of the predators patrolling the adjoining water column or open seafloor – and vice versa.

The dynamics in these multispecies cooperative hunts are pretty fascinating. Research shows that groupers will actively muster giant morays to the hunt, and use a headstand routine to direct morays, octopuses, and wrasses to the location of a nooked-away prey animal.

That’s some impressive signaling, but for the most part these hunts aren’t really well-oiled strike-force operations with divvied-up roles. Rather, they basically seem to be various fishes and octopuses executing their own personal hunting methods in close proximity to one another at the same time, having learned that this kind of rough coordination often pays dividends in terms of harried prey with no place to hide.

The new Red Sea study suggests these ragtag sorties can involve some testy team-management exchanges. It’s maybe no surprise that, as the authors write, “conflicts between partners can arise over the level of investment or the distribution of payoffs. Thus, in this complex social network of interactions, partner control mechanisms might emerge in order to prevent exploitation and ensure collaboration.”

A “partner control mechanism” of choice for the day octopus, the study found, was “a swift, explosive motion with one arm directed at a specific fish partner,” which you might also describe as the good old sucker-punch.

The scientists observed octopuses clocking a number of different fish commonly involved in these interspecies hunting associations, including blacktip and lyretail groupers, yellow-saddle and Red Sea goatfishes, and half-spotted hinds.

The octopuses got punchy in several contexts, the study showed. The most straightforward seemed to be when the octopus displaced a nearby fish in order to snatch a prey item. One of those competitive cases saw the cephalopod hit a tailspot squirrelfish, a species which is less active participant in these interspecies hunts and more opportunistic hanger-on.

However, “other events show that punching is not always followed by an attempt to retrieve prey,” the authors note, “indicating that it also occurs in the absence of immediate benefits.”

When an octopus socks a collaborator, the researchers suggest, it may be a “spiteful behaviour” following, perhaps, a grouper or goatfish gobbling down a prize. Or it may serve as a blunt-force reminder for a fish to, essentially, stay in its lane during a hunt.

The paper notes that further observations and quantitative analysis will hopefully shed more light onto the whole punching-octopus routine and its role in these interspecies hunting associations—including investigating “the potential existence of privileged relationships between octopuses and specific fish partners (e.g., are some species or individuals more punched than others?),” which has spicy implications.

Header image: Bernard Dupont