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Book Review:

Cephalopods: Octopuses and Cuttlefishes for the Home Aquarium 


Colin Dunlop and Nancy King



by Neale Monks  

The maintenance of cephalopods, particularly the smaller species of octopuses, has steadily become more popular over the years. Cephalopods are molluscs in terms of classification, but unlike snails or clams they are dynamic, intelligent animals adapt to a highly predatory lifestyle. Many species display an ability to learn tricks and adapt to their environment simply without parallel among the invertebrates. Aquarists who maintain octopuses often comment on their highly individual personalities, and come to think of them with a level of affection more like that given to cats and dogs.

Unfortunately for the casual hobbyist though, cephalopods are difficult animals to maintain. All require pristine water conditions, and most are very fussy feeders that only accept live foods. Octopuses are notorious escape artists as well, so their habitat has to be designed not only to stop them from getting bored, but also to make sure they can't get out! But even if you have the budget, skills and experience to be able to look after them, getting good information can be difficult.

That's where the new TFH book 'Cephalopods: Octopuses and Cuttlefishes for the Home Aquarium' comes in. The authors are Colin Dunlop and Nancy King; both experienced cephalopod keepers as well as scientists. At well over two-hundred pages in length and profusely illustrated with some of the best cephalopod photos I've seen, at first glance at least this book set to be the definitive textbook for those aquarists ambitious enough to keep these amazing invertebrates. But does it live up to its promise?


Inevitably aquarists keeping animals as specialised as cephalopods will be interested in their evolution and biology. The authors introduce the cephalopods in the first chapter, taking care to review the taxonomy of the group, outlining the key differences between octopuses on the one hand and cuttlefishes on the other. The many features that they have in common are described, and there is also a brief review of the evolution of the group.

As the book progresses through eight chapters devoted to aquarium husbandry and species selection, the scientific content is less overt but remains significant. Anyone reading this book to find out about the particular octopus or cuttlefish they own will quickly absorb a lot of useful information on natural habitats, breeding behaviour and so on.


In general terms the book is written in a light but precise way, very much in the style of a couple of jovial experts explaining their subject to an audience of well-informed students. The book does assume a certain amount of background knowledge with regard to things like filtration and artificial seawater chemistry, but that's obviously not a bad thing in a book aimed at a very specific niche within the hobby.

One odd quirk is the flipping between metric and US units in terms of priority. This likely follows on from the fact that one author is a Scot and the other an American. It should be noted that this quirk only applies to which units are given first in a particular sentence: in all the cases I could find, even where (say) the metric unit came first, the US unit would be presented in parentheses. British readers should note that some US units are not always identical to Imperial units, most notably in the case of the gallon, where the Imperial gallon is significantly larger than the US gallon.


As has been mentioned, neither octopuses nor cuttlefish are easy to keep. No fewer than three chapters are dedicated to the issue of building an aquarium that caters to their very specific needs. The two authors are highly experienced cephalopod-keepers, and what they present in the book is clear, relevant and above all practical.

Refreshingly perhaps, the accent isn't so much on high-tech or expensive equipment, but rather on getting the basics right from the start, so that the aquarium you build for your octopus or cuttlefish is finely tuned to provide the right water conditions. Now, some marine fishkeepers may take issue with this approach. In particular the authors advocate water changes as the prime tool for keeping nitrate levels low, rather than things like the deep sand beds increasingly widely used in reef tanks. They do also pass over topics like alkalinity and redox potential that are considered by many aquarists to be essential indicators of water quality.

But the other way of looking at this is to accept that this is a book that, by definition, is aimed at expert fishkeepers. What the authors are really doing is outlining the baseline values required for cephalopods in terms of salinity, temperature, nitrate concentration and so on, and leaving the aquarist to choose how they want to go about providing these conditions.

On the other hand, where the authors go into great detail is when explaining the things that make a cephalopod aquarium distinctive compared to a generic marine aquarium catering to fish or corals. For example, they explain why undergravel filters can't be used, why protein skimmers are essential, and why you might want to avoid lighting your aquarium altogether.

Decorating the cephalopod aquarium is a complicated topic, not least of all because octopuses like to hide in rocks while cuttlefish prefer to burrow into the sand. So if you want your pet to feel at home, you'll need to follow the suggestions presented here to provide it with a comforting environment. Making the tank escape proof is another essential topic that the authors cover in depth.


Cephalopods are completely carnivorous, consuming little if any plant material in the wild. Feeding them in captivity can be difficult because they mostly prefer live foods, and generally need quite a lot of food if they are to remain healthy, so the topic of feeding these animals is of particular importance.

The authors spend an entire chapter discussing the nutritional requirements of cephalopods. Initially they discuss the key issue of how much to feed and how often, but then move on to what sorts of foods can be used and how to obtain them. UK aquarists are reasonably lucky in being able to buy live river shrimps from many of the bigger aquarium shops. These are inexpensive and will survive for several days in a tropical or subtropical marine aquarium despite being coldwater animals in the wild. But if you can't get hold of these shrimps, the authors describe lots of alternatives as well, ranging from freshwater crayfish to live clams.

With care, some cephalopods can be weaned onto frozen foods. The authors describe the use of feeding sticks and other tools for getting this useful job done. On the flip side, they also outline the problems that arise when the wrong foods are used. Feeder fish, for example, are not only too fatty to be safe to use, but can also introduce toxic amounts of copper that have been used to medicate the fish at some point. Copper is deadly to cephalopods, and even small amounts will poison them.


The fifth chapter of the book is all about buying and acclimating cephalopods. This is one of the most critical parts of the topic because a lot of things can go wrong within the first few days. The importance of the drip method of adjusting your new cephalopod to the water conditions in the home aquarium cannot be overstated, and the authors do a good job of detailing all the steps required to make the adjustment. They also provide sage advice on things you should and shouldn't do once your octopus or cuttlefish has been turned loose in its new home. You shouldn't try to feed your pet for the first day for example, and you shouldn't try to play with your pet until it has had a couple of weeks to settle down.

Octopuses are particularly sensitive to their environment, in both positive and negative ways. Bright lights will scare them, but hiding places will encourage them to settle down more quickly. The authors describe a variety of toys that enrich the life of a pet octopus, giving it things to explore and thereby avoid boredom. And yes, octopuses can get bored, and at some level they need to be stimulated if they are to remain happy and healthy in the long term.

Enjoying your pets

Cephalopods can be enjoyed in many ways, and the authors enthusiastically outline some of the ways they have enjoyed their pets. Breeding cephalopods is one topic they discuss in depth, and even those who don't have space to maintain sexually mature groups of octopuses might care to raise octopuses or cuttlefish from eggs. These can be ordered through your retailer, being quite widely available from exporters and wholesalers.

An unusual but very worthwhile chapter explains the best way to photograph your pet cephalopod. Given the relatively short lifespan of most species, typically a year or two, most keepers will be quite anxious to take some pictures, and the authors do a great job of outlining the process. Being somewhat photophobic animals, there is a bit of an art to taking the perfect octopus portrait!

The back end of the book contains various appendices including some pretty off the wall stuff on cephalopods in art and literature. There are lots of links to cephalopod-oriented web pages, as well as a good list of useful books. People who are prepared to keep octopuses and cuttlefish as pets are going to have to be pretty dedicated given the demands these animals place on their owners, but around the world there are actually quite a lot of those people! If nothing else, this book makes it clear that if you think a cuddly animal should have eight legs, two hearts, an upside-down beak and be able to change its colour at will, you are not alone!


Yes! As someone who has been lucky enough to work on cephalopods, I was thrilled to receive this book for review. This is a well-researched and well-presented book that stands remarkably well as a practical review of the natural history of octopuses and cuttlefish But what really makes it special is that the authors are so clearly enthusiastic, intelligent and above all competent that they make this challenging aspect of the marine aquarium hobby dramatically more accessible than it was before the book was written. It's a landmark book, and an essential purchase for anyone interested in keeping cephalopods in captivity.

Copyright Neale Monks

We hope to have this book available on TFF within the next few weeks and it is currently available from all major shops.

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