Octopus Intelligence


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Detecting an Opportunity

Tangled in one of these sponges and the gray-green seaweed around it is an animal about the size of a cat. Its body seems to be everywhere and nowhere. The only parts you can keep a fix on are a small head and the two eyes. As you make your way around the sponge, so, too, do those eyes, keeping their distance, keeping part of the sponge between the two of you.

Do you care about animals? Then you really shouldn't eat octopus | Elle Hunt

The creature's color perfectly matches the seaweed, except that some of its skin is folded into tiny, towerlike peaks with tips that match the orange of the sponge. Eventually it raises its head high, then rockets away under jet propulsion. A second meeting with an octopus: this one is in a den. Shells are strewn in front, arranged with some pieces of old glass. You stop in front of its house, and the two of you look at each other. This one is small, about the size of a tennis ball.

You reach forward a hand and stretch out one finger, and one octopus arm slowly uncoils and comes out to touch you. The suckers grab your skin, and the hold is disconcertingly tight.

Are octopuses smart?

It tugs your finger, tasting it as it pulls you gently in. The arm is packed with sensors, hundreds of them in each of the dozens of suckers. The arm itself is alive with neurons, a nest of nervous activity. Behind the arm, large round eyes watch you the whole time. Octopuses and their relatives cuttlefish and squid represent an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Since my first encounters with these creatures about a decade ago, I have been intrigued by the powerful sense of engagement that is possible when interacting with them. Our most recent common ancestor is so distant—more than twice as ancient as the first dinosaurs—that they represent an entirely independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior.

If we can connect with them as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. They are probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien. Octopuses, cuttlefish and squid belong to a class of marine mollusks called cephalopods, along with now extinct creatures called ammonites and belemnites. The fossil record of octopuses remains skimpy. As the only cephalopods without an external or internal shell and no hard parts except for a beak, they do not preserve well. But at some stage during their evolution, they radiated—around species are known at present, including deep-sea as well as reef-dwelling forms.

They range from less than an inch in length to the giant Pacific octopus, which weighs in at pounds and spans 20 feet from arm tip to arm tip. As the cephalopod body evolved toward these modern forms—internalizing the shell or losing it altogether—another transformation occurred: some of the cephalopods became smart.

First of all, these animals evolved large nervous systems, including large brains. Large in what sense? A common octopus Octopus vulgaris has about million neurons in its body. That is a lot by almost any standard. Human beings have many more—something nearing billion—but the octopus is in the same range as various mammals, close to the range of dogs, and cephalopods have much larger nervous systems than all other invertebrates.

Absolute size is important, but it is usually regarded as less informative than relative size—the size of the brain as a fraction of the size of the body. Octopuses also score high by this measure, roughly in the range of vertebrates, though not as high as mammals. Biologists regard all these assessments of size, however, as only a very rough guide to the brainpower an animal has. Some brains are organized differently from others, with more or fewer synapses, which can also be more or less complicated.

The most startling finding in recent work on animal intelligence is how smart some birds are, especially parrots and crows. Birds have quite small brains in absolute terms, though very high-powered ones. When we try to compare one animal's brainpower with another's, we also run into the problem that there is no single scale on which intelligence can be sensibly measured.

Different animals are good at different things, as makes sense given the different lives they live. When cephalopods are compared with mammals, the lack of any common anatomy only increases the difficulties. Vertebrate brains all have a common architecture.

Expertise. Insights. Illumination.

But when vertebrate brains are compared with octopus brains, all bets—or rather all mappings—are off. Octopuses have not even collected the majority of their neurons inside their brains; most of the neurons are in their arms. Given all this, the way to work out how smart octopuses are is to look at what they can do. Octopuses have done fairly well on tests of their intelligence in the laboratory, without showing themselves to be Einsteins.

They can learn to navigate simple mazes. They can use visual cues to discriminate between two familiar environments and then take the best route toward some reward. They can learn to unscrew jars to obtain the food inside—even from the inside out. But octopuses are slow learners in all these contexts.

Smart Octopus Escapes of A closed Jar -Look How Did it !!

Against this background of mixed experimental results, however, there are countless anecdotes suggesting that a lot more is going on. The most famous octopus tales involve escape and thievery, in which roving aquarium octopuses raid neighboring tanks at night for food. Those stories—the basis for octopod hijinks in the Disney-Pixar film Finding Dory —are not especially indicative of high intelligence.

Neighboring tanks are not so different from tide pools, even if the entrance and exit take more effort. But here is a behavior I find more intriguing: in at least two aquariums, octopuses have learned to turn off the lights by squirting jets of water at the bulbs and short-circuiting the power supply. At the University of Otago in New Zealand, this game became so expensive that the octopus had to be released back to the wild.

Click or tap to enlarge. This story illustrates a more general fact: octopuses have an ability to adapt to the special circumstances of captivity and to their interactions with human keepers. Anecdotally at least, it has long appeared that captive octopuses can recognize and behave differently toward individual human keepers. Whenever that person passed by on the walkway behind the tank, she received a half-gallon jet of water down the back of her neck.

Neuroscientist Shelley Adamo of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia also had one cuttlefish that reliably squirted streams of water at all new visitors to the lab but not at people who were often around. In the late biologist Roland C. After two weeks, all the octopuses behaved differently toward the two keepers, confirming that they can distinguish among individual people, even when they wear identical uniforms. With octopuses it is totally different. They know that they are inside this special place, and you are outside it.

Why Are Octopuses So Smart? - The Atlantic

All their behaviors are affected by their awareness of captivity. Of course, this flooded the entire lab. The tales of octopuses squirting experimenters reminded me of something I had seen myself.


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Captive octopuses often try to escape, and when they do, they seem unerringly able to pick the one moment you are not watching them. I thought I might be imagining this tendency, until I heard a talk a few years ago by marine biologist David Scheel of Alaska Pacific University, who works with octopuses full-time. He, too, said that octopuses seem to track in subtle ways whether he is watching them or not, and they make their move when he is not. I suppose this makes sense as a natural behavior in octopuses; you want to make a run for it when the barracuda is not looking at you.

But the fact that octopuses can so quickly do this with humans—both with scuba mask and without—is impressive. Another octopus behavior that has made its way from anecdote to experimental investigation is play. An innovator in cephalopod research, Jennifer Mather of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, along with Anderson, did the first studies of this behavior, and it has now been investigated in detail. In general, the initial interest an octopus takes in any new object is gustatory—can I eat it? But once an object is found to be inedible, that does not always mean it is uninteresting.

Work by Michael Kuba, now at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan, has confirmed that octopuses can quickly tell that some items are not food and are often still quite interested in exploring and manipulating them. Let's look more closely now at how the nervous system behind these behaviors evolved.

The history of large brains has, very roughly, the shape of a letter Y. At the branching center of the Y is the last common ancestor of vertebrates and mollusks—some million years ago. That ancestor was probably a flattened, wormlike creature with a simple nervous system.

It may have had simple eyes. Its neurons may have been partly bunched together at its front, but there would not have been much of a brain there. It should then be no surprise that some of our observational experiments end up having some very unexpected results. Yes, octopuses sure love adding their own plot twists to the story. Such is the case with the experiment that was captured in this video. The Experiment was simple enough. It involved placing a fish inside a sealed container. The container, which looks like a large baby bottle complete with a pacifier top, is actually a feeding bottle for small farm animals.

The fish was placed inside and a small hole was drilled on the top before turning it to close it tight.

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