Reported in the current issue of the Journal of Ocean Knowledge and Experience, a newly discovered species of cephalopod (squid, octopus, cuttlefish) wordlessly demonstrates the ability to feel and express empathy for the human scientists conducting the research. The animals inhabit one small area of Kimbe Bay in the poorly surveyed Coral Triangle off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Individuals photographed in the wild along with the three now residing in an enclosure at the New Britain Research Aquaria resemble octopus but with seven rather than the typical eight legs, one especially long and thin limb sprouting from the top of the head. They are large, about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, and purple-gray colored. It is that extra-long leg which led to the remarkable discovery.

Dr. Joan Swift was initially startled and then intrigued when, after receiving some bad news about her personal life (details not made available), the three in her tank actually reached their long legs out of the water to, in her words, “tap me reassuringly on the shoulder and eventually embrace me in what was obviously intended as a hug. If a coworker had done it, I might have been moved but probably would have reported them to HR. Since this was my test subject, however, I had no rule-book to follow.”

As perceptive readers might by now suspect, everything I’ve written about this fictional creature is a lie. (First clue: the report was cited as published in the Journal of Ocean Knowledge and Experience, or JOKE. Puh-lease!) No seven-legged coral reef dwelling saltwater empath has been discovered (yet). And animals can’t express wordless empathy, right…? Obviously wrong. Getting a wordless hug from a giant purple squid-cousin would be world-altering biological news, sure, but no matter how much we appreciate their love, most of us take for granted the fact that the animals who share our homes routinely express compassionate concern for their people. Empathy for their own kind and for others has been documented not only in dogs and cats, but also elephants, rats, gorillas, dolphins, horses, some species of parrots, and many more animals to the point that some researchers consider the trait common, our list limited only by humans’ inability to recognize it.


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