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What is killing the octopus of Vila Nova de Gaia? That question has obsessed the Portuguese city, located just across the Douro river from Porto, since Jan. 2, when 1,100 lbs. (500 kg) of dead octopus were found on a 1.8-mile (3 km) stretch of local beach. The following day, another 110 lbs (50 kg) appeared; today there was just one expired creature. "It's very strange that so many should be killed, and in such a confined area," says Nuno Oliveira, director of the Gaia Biological Park, a nature refuge on the outskirts of Vila Nova de Gaia. "There's nothing in the scientific literature for this kind of mass mortality among octopus." Twelve hundred pounds is a lot of dead cephalopod, especially when no one seems to know for sure what killed them. Local biologists have ruled out pollution or contamination because no other species were affected. And although some suggest that perhaps a boat, illegally fishing the multilegged creatures, threw them overboard in a panicked attempt to avoid detection, that possibility also seems unlikely. "The sea has been very rough," says Oliveira. "No one has been out fishing for days." (See pictures of 10 animal species nearing extinction.)
There is one other option, however. In December 2007, Portuguese police confiscated 9.4 tons of coc aine in a shipment of frozen octopus from Venezuela. "I suppose it's possible that someone defrosted the animals, took out the coc aine, then threw their bodies overboard," says Weber. Still, like Oliveira, Weber is betting on a biological cause. "We've had swine flu, bird flu," he says, not completely in jest. "Why not octopus flu?"