Paul the octopus

Paul (octopus)

Paul the Octopus
Oktopus-Orakel Paul mit Schuh.JPG
Paul in his tank, next to a football boot with the German flag colours
Other appellation(s) Paul Oktopus, Paul der Krake
Species Octopus vulgaris
Sex Male
Born January 2008
Weymouth, Dorset
Occupation Exhibit, Psychic Football Pundit
Known for Predicting results of Germany’s football matches
Owner Sea Life Centres (aquarium keeper: Oliver Walenciak)
Named after A poem by Boy Lornsen, Der Tintenfisch Paul Oktopus

Paul (hatched January 2008) is a common octopus living in a tank at a Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen, Germany, who is used as an animal oracle to predict the results of football matches, usually international matches in which Germany is playing. He came to worldwide attention with his accurate predictions in the 2010 World Cup.

During a divination, Paul is presented with two boxes containing food, each marked with the flag of a national football team in an upcoming match. He chose the box with the flag of the winning team in four of Germany’s six Euro 2008 matches, and in all seven of their matches in the 2010 World Cup. He correctly predicted a win for Spain against the Netherlands in the World Cup final on 11 July by eating the mussel in the box with the Spanish flag on it.[1] His predictions have thus been 100% (8/8) correct for the 2010 World Cup and 86% (12/14) correct overall.


Paul was hatched from an egg at the Sea Life Centre in Weymouth, England, then moved to a tank at one of the chain’s centres in Oberhausen, Germany.[2] His name derives from the title of a poem by the German children’s writer Boy Lornsen: Der Tintenfisch Paul Oktopus.[3][4]

The animal rights organization PETA stated it would be cruel to keep Paul in permanent confinement. Sea Life Centres responded that it would be dangerous to release him, because he was born in captivity, and is not accustomed to finding food for himself.[5]

According to DPA, local businessmen in Carballiño, a community in Galicia (Spain) collected about 30,000 Euro “Transfer fee” to get Paul as main attraction of the local Fiesta del Pulpo festival.[6] Manuel Pazo, a fisher and head of the local business club assured that Paul would be presented alive in a tank and not on the menu. Sea Life Centres rejected the offer nevertheless.[7]


The two plastic boxes which are presented to Paul. The food items are visible in the left-hand corners.

Paul’s career as an oracle began during the UEFA Euro 2008 tournament. In the lead-up to Germany’s international football matches, Paul is presented with two clear plastic boxes, each containing food: a mussel or an oyster. Each container is marked with the flag of a team, one the flag of Germany, and the other the flag of Germany’s opponent. The box which Paul opens first (and eats the contents of) is judged to be the predicted winner of the game.[9]

Paul’s apparent success is comparable to a run of luck when tossing a coin. This connection has been made by Professor Chris Budd of the University of Bath, Professor David Spiegelharter of Cambridge University, and Etienne Roquain of Pierre and Marie Curie University.[10][11]

Under the hypothesis that Paul is equally likely to choose the winner or the loser of a match, and neglecting the possibility of a draw, he has a 1/2 chance of predicting a single result and a 1/64 chance of predicting six in a row. This feat would be unlikely, but not nearly as unlikely as winning the UK lottery, a chance of 1/14 million. Spiegelharter and Roquain point out that there are “other animals that have attempted but failed to predict the outcome of football matches”; it is not remarkable that one animal is more successful than the others, and only the successful animals will gain public attention after the fact.

Potential biases

Flag of Germany: A horizontal tricolor of black, red and gold
Germany (11)
Flag of Spain: A horizontal tricolor of red, yellow and red, the yellow stripe being twice the size of each red stripe and containing the coat of arms
Spain (2)
Flag of Serbia: A horizontal tricolor of red, blue. and white, with the lesser coat of arms
Serbia (1)
Flags picked by Paul

Roquain goes on to admit that chance is not necessarily the only explanation for Paul’s choices. He could be choosing boxes systematically—if not on the basis of football expertise, then perhaps on his evaluation of the countries’ flags or the food offered.[11]

The species Octopus vulgaris is almost certainly color blind; neither behavioral studies nor electroretinogram experiments show any discrimination of a color’s hue.[12][13] Nonetheless, individuals can distinguish brightness as well as an object’s size, shape, and orientation. Shelagh Malham of Bangor University states that they are drawn to horizontal shapes, and indeed, there are horizontal stripes on the flags he has chosen. The flag of Germany, a bold tricolor consisting of three equal horizontal bands of black, red and gold, is Paul’s usual favorite. But the flag of Spain, with its broad yellow stripe, and the flag of Serbia, with its contrast of blue and white, are more vivid still, possibly explaining why Paul picked those countries over Germany.[12] Fey suggested that Paul was confused by the similarities between the German and Spanish flags; this was on July 6, when Fey expressed hope that Paul’s latest pick would be wrong.[14]

Matthew Fuller, the senior aquarist at the Weymouth park, judged the flag-shape theory to be plausible: “[Octopuses] are the most intelligent of all the invertebrates and studies have shown they are able to distinguish shapes and patterns so maybe he’s able to recognise flags.”[15] Vyacheslav Bisikov, a Russian biologist, agrees that it is possible for an octopus to become attracted to a striped flag.[16] However, Pascal Coutant, director of the La Rochelle Aquarium states: “It’s complete chance that guides his choices.”[17]

Octopus vulgaris is also equipped with sensitive chemoreceptors on its tentacles, which are used to taste food and “smell” the water. Biologist Volker Miske, of the University of Greifswald, suggests that minor chemical differences on the surface of each box might account for Paul’s decisions.[18] Bisikov states that Paul could be “easily trained” to choose the right box by smell.[16] According to Paul’s keepers, there are holes in the jars to help him choose.[19]

Theories of his behavior could be systematically tested if Paul were to repeat his selection many times, but he only selects one box per game.[18] A scientific experiment would be more vigilant towards sources of bias, including the flag visuals and potential differences in the preparation of the food.[11]


Paul holds a press conference, 6 July 2010.

In UEFA Euro 2008, Paul correctly predicted the outcome of 4 out of 6 of Germany’s matches. He failed to predict their defeats by Croatia in the group stage,[20] and by Spain in the championship’s final.[2][nb 1]

2010 FIFA World Cup

Paul’s accurate choices for the 2010 World Cup, broadcast live by German news channel NTV, have endowed him with celebrity status.[2] Paul predicted the winners of each of the seven 2010 FIFA World Cup matches that the German team played, against Australia, Serbia, Ghana, England, Argentina, Spain,[22] and Uruguay. His prediction that Argentina would lose prompted Argentine chef Nicolas Bedorrou to post an octopus recipe on Facebook.[2]

There are always people who want to eat our octopus but he is not shy and we are here to protect him as well. He will survive.
—Oliver Walenciak (Paul’s keeper)[23]

Paul correctly predicted the outcome of the semi-final, by choosing the food in the box marked with the Spanish flag. German supporters drew hope from his incorrect choice for the Germany versus Spain match in the UEFA Euro 2008 but were disappointed.[24] The prediction led to death threats as German fans called for Paul to be cooked and eaten.[25][26] In response, Spanish prime minister Jose Zapatero jokingly offered to send Paul official state protection, and the Industry Minister Miguel Sebastian called for Paul to be given safe haven in Spain.[27][28] Paul maintained a 100% accurate record during the tournament by correctly predicting Spain’s victory over the Netherlands in the final.

Results involving Germany

Euro 2008
Opponent↓ Stage↓ Date↓ Prediction↓ Result↓ Outcome↓
Poland group stage 8 June 2008 Germany 2–0 Correct
Croatia group stage 12 June 2008 Germany[2][20] 1–2 Incorrect
Austria group stage 16 June 2008 Germany 1–0 Correct
Portugal quarter-finals 19 June 2008 Germany 3–2 Correct
Turkey semi-finals 25 June 2008 Germany 3–2 Correct
Spain final 29 June 2008 Germany[2] 0–1 Incorrect

Paul picks Germany over Uruguay on July 9, 2010.

World Cup 2010
Opponent↓ Stage↓ Date↓ Prediction↓ Result↓ Outcome↓
Australia group stage 13 June 2010 Germany[29] 4–0 Correct
Serbia group stage 18 June 2010 Serbia[29] 0–1 Correct
Ghana group stage 23 June 2010 Germany[29] 1–0 Correct
England round of 16 27 June 2010 Germany[30] 4–1 Correct
Argentina quarter-finals 3 July 2010 Germany[23] 4–0 Correct
Spain semi-finals 7 July 2010 Spain[31] 0–1 Correct
Uruguay 3rd place play-off 10 July 2010 Germany[32] 3–2 Correct

Results not involving Germany

Paul picks Spain over the Netherlands on July 9, 2010.

Teams↓ Tournament↓ Stage↓ Date↓ Prediction↓ Result↓ Outcome↓
Netherlands vs. Spain World Cup 2010 final 11 July 2010 Spain[33] 0–1 Correct


Assuming Paul’s predictions were no better than fair independent coin flips, the probability of 12 successful predictions in 14 attempts is ~0.65%, as given by the binomial distribution.[34] And the probability of 8 successful predictions out of 8 attempts is ~0.39%.[35]. Of course there were many public predictions about World Cup results using quirky methods that were wrong and hence did not get international attention. It is an example of the Prosecutor’s fallacy to use the same data that brought Paul to fame to suggest that he has precognition.

Similar oracles

Some other oracles did not fare so well in the World Cup. The animals at the Chemnitz Zoo in Germany were wrong on all of Germany’s group-stage games, with Leon the porcupine picking Australia, Petty the pygmy hippopotamus spurning Serbia’s apple-topped pile of hay, and Anton the tamarin eating a raisin representing Ghana. Mani the Parakeet of Singapore picked the Netherlands to win the final.

Henry the Hexapus

Henry the Hexapus was a six-limbed octopus found by British marine scientists in 2008.[1][2] The name alludes to King Henry VIII, who had six wives.[3]

Henry was found off the coast of North Wales in a lobster pot, and was held in captivity at the Blackpool Sea Life Centre in North West England. Henry’s unusual number of arms was not immediately noticed, and appears to have resulted from a natal anomaly, rather than a physical accident.[1][2] Developmental biologist PZ Myers called the defect “an ordinary sort of error.”[4] After being taken from the sea, he was transferred to the Anglesey Sea Zoo, which, in turn, donated him to the Blackpool Centre.[2]

Henry featured in an exhibit at the Blackpool Sea Life Centre, entitled “Suckers”.[2] An aquarium spokeswoman stated that “[Henry]’s a lovely little thing.”[1]

Many other octopus arm anomalies have been recorded in the past.

Octopus wrestling

Three divers holding the largest catch of the 1963 World Octopus Wrestling Championships, a 57 pound North Pacific Giant Octopus.

Octopus wrestling involves a diver grappling with an octopus in shallow water and dragging it to the surface.[1]

An early article on octopus wrestling appeared in a 1949 issue of Mechanix Illustrated.[2]

Octopus wrestling was most popular in the coastal United States during the 1960s. At that time, annual World Octopus Wrestling Championships were held in Puget Sound, Washington. The event was televised and attracted up to 5,000 spectators.[1] Trophies were awarded to the individual divers and teams who caught the largest animals. Afterwards, the octopuses were either eaten, given to the local aquarium, or returned to the sea.[1]

In April 1963, 111 divers took part in the World Octopus Wrestling Championships. A total of 25 North Pacific Giant Octopuses were captured that day, ranging in weight from 4 to 57 pounds.[3]

A 1965 issue of Time magazine documented the growing popularity of octopus wrestling as follows:[4]

Merely to minnow about underwater is no longer enough, and such sports as octopus wrestling are coming increasingly into vogue, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where the critters grow up to 90 Ibs. and can be exceedingly tough customers. Although there are several accepted techniques for octopus wrestling, the really sporty way requires that the human diver go without artificial breathing apparatus.

H. Allen Smith wrote an article for True magazine in 1964, collected in Low Man Rides Again (1973) about a gentleman named O’Rourke whom he dubs the “Father of Octopus Wrestling.” According to information Smith collected from Idwal Jones and other sources, O’Rourke and a partner developed a business in the late 1940s of fishing for octopuses with O’Rourke serving as live bait and his partner hauling him out of the water after an octopus was sufficiently wrapped around him.

All this while O’Rourke was becoming perhaps the world’s greatest authority on the thought processes and the personality of the octopus. He knew how to outmaneuver them, to outflank them, and to outthink them. He knew full well, many years ago, what today’s octopus wrestlers are just beginning to learn–that it is impossible for a man with two arms to apply a full nelson on an octopus; he knew full well the futility of trying for a crotch hold on an opponent with eight crotches.


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