PZ Myers over at Pharyngula fills us in on how octopus suckers work:
The way it works is that the sucker is pressed against a surface, and the flexible outer margin of skin conforms to it, forming a seal. Then the radial muscles contract. Now muscle is a relatively incompressible tissue; when it contracts, it changes its length, but it cannot change its volume. When you make a muscle in your arm to show off to the girls, you are reducing the length of the bicep, so it has to bulge outwards to maintain a constant volume. This principle is also how your tongue works: when muscles contract to flatten it, the volume has to stay the same so it protrudes.
When the radial muscles in the sucker contract, the walls of the acetabulum and infundibulum get thinner. The muscle volume has to go somewhere, so the circumference of the cup-shaped acetabulum has to increase, increasing the volume of the acetabular chamber. Since the infundibulum is sealed against a surface, water can’t get in; so we have the same quantity of water in a larger chamber, which means the pressure is reduced, generating suction. They can release their grip by relaxing the radial muscles, or contracting the circular muscles, which would reduce the volume of the acetabulum.
This is one of those things that I’ve always wondered about and had my suspicions on and it turns out I had the basic principle behind it right, but the details are fascinating. The full entry is brief, but a good read none the less. Go check it out.