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Smart Octopus?

First Published: The Festivus. 2006. 38(1):7-9

By Dr. Roland C. Anderson
The Seattle Aquarium
1483 Alaskan Way
Seattle, WA 98101
Phone: 206-386-4346
Fax: 206-386-4328

Daniel Blustein
Kalmazoo College

Octopus and pill bottle
Figure 1. Giant Pacific octopus “Billye” accepts a child-proof pill bottle
containing herring. She will open the jar and get at the food in an average
time of five minutes.

Octopuses are considered the most intelligent invertebrate (Linden, 2002). They learn simple mazes (Wells, 1978; Boal, 1996), distinguish between shapes and patterns in classical conditioning (Boal, 1991), use landmark navigation while foraging (Mather, 1991b), use tools (Mather, 1994), show play behavior (Mather and Anderson, 1999) and have individual personalities (Mather and Anderson, 1993). Because of their intelligence, octopuses have become subjects of environmental enrichment in captivity (Anderson and Wood, 2001). Such enrichment for octopuses can take the form of providing live food such as crabs or adding other natural tank inhabitants such as compatible fish and invertebrates, giving them complicated environments for exploration (Anderson and Wood, 2001). Other forms of octopus.enrichment are what Rehling (2000) calls “prey puzzles” which octopuses solve to get food. An example of a prey puzzle is a crab or other food inside a screw-top jar that the octopus has to unscrew in order to get the food inside. Such enrichments are widely practiced by public aquariums, but Anderson and Wood (2001) caution that as yet there is no method to measure the effects of enrichment on octopuses. However, Dickel, et al., (2000) have proven enrichment to be beneficial to cuttlefish, species similar to octopuses. Since octopuses are intelligent, enrichment should be provided to them in captivity (Anderson and Wood, 2001).

During the second annual Octopus Week celebration at the Seattle Aquarium (14-22 February 2003), enrichment demonstrations proved popular with the public (Anderson, 2003). The female giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) on display (“Pandora”) proved particularly adept at opening jars with screw-top lids. She opened the first in just 15 minutes and later presentations of this puzzle took her an average of two minutes to open. It is not surprising to find that some octopuses seem better at these prey puzzles than others owing to their differing temperaments (Sinn, et al., 2001).

On the basis of the results above, it was decided to further challenge a female giant Pacific octopus (“Billye”) by giving raw herring pieces inside a child-proof pill bottle. Since octopuses taste with their suckers (Wells, 1963), several holes were drilled in a 480 ml pill container to allow the octopus to sense the presence of food within. To open the lid it was necessary to push down on the lid at the same time as turning it and “Billye”, the octopus, accomplished this task in 55 minutes. It was difficult to tell exactly when the jar was opened because it was enveloped within the animal’s eight arms. However, the dropping of the lid by the octopus was used to mark the time of opening of the jar.. Further presentations resulted in a decrease of the average opening time to 5 minutes. Presentations to three other octopuses showed similar patterns (see Figure 2).

These results do not imply octopuses are smarter than human children but the trouble lies in actually measuring and quantifying octopus intelligence. Our standard methods of measuring intelligence in animals may be anthropocentric and we even have difficulties assuring ourselves that tests measuring human intelligence are accurate or standardized (Beiser and Gotowiec, 2000). Octopuses are refuging predators (per Curio, 1976), who live in dens and go out to different areas each trip to hunt prey (Mather, 1991a). They do not hunt in the same area each time since it would have been depleted by previous hunts. Therefore, our standard tests of giving food as rewards for turning the same way in a maze or pressing a different shaped or patterned button again and again may not be able to properly assess the true intellectual ability of octopuses.

Also, octopuses do not have a lot of brainpower. Their brains only have about 168 million neurons (Wells, 1962), compared to humans who have about 100 billion (Nolte, 1999), but they may use them more efficiently than we do. Octopuses also have a peripheral nerve system - as much as 50% of their nerves - in their arms (Sumbre, et al., 2001). As yet we do not know if this plays any part in their intelligence but they may allocate motor control to these areas and have more brain capacity remaining for learning. The ancient lineages that led to the ancestors of octopuses and humans diverged more than a billion years ago (Wray, et al., 1996). Thus observations in octopuses such as this may give us further insight into what Tennesen (1999) called a “different way of thinking.”

Literature Cited

Anderson, R.C. 2003. Octopus enrichment at the Seattle Aquarium. The Shape of Enrichment. 12(2):7-8.

Anderson, R.C. and J.B. Wood. 2001. Enrichment for giant Pacific octopuses: happy as a clam? Journal for Applied Animal Welfare Science. 4(2):157-168.

Beiser, M. and A Gotowiec. 2000. Accounting for native/non-native differences in IQ scores. Psychology in Schools. 37:237-252.

Boal, J. 1991. Complex learning in Octopus bimaculoides. American Malacological Bulletin. 9(1):75-80.

Boal. J.G. 1996. A review of simultaneous visual discrimination as a method of training octopuses. Biol. Rev. 71:157-190.

Curio, E. 1976. The ethology of predation. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Dickel, L., J.G. Boal and B.U. Budelmann. 2000. The effect of early experience on learning and memory in cuttlefish. Developmental Psychobiology. 36(2):101-110.

Linden, E. 2002. The octopus and the orangutan. Dutton (NY). 242 pp.

Mather, J.A. 1991a. Foraging, feeding and prey remains in middens of juvenile Octopus vulgaris (Mollusca: Cephalopoda). J. Zool. Lond. 224:27-39.

Mather, J.A. 1991b. Navigation by spatial memory and use of visual landmarks in octopuses. Journal of Comparative Physiology. 168(491-497).

Mather, J.A. 1994. “Home” choice and modification by juvenile Octopus vulgaris (Mollusca: Cephalopoda): specialized intelligence and tool use? J. Zool. Lond. 233:359-368.

Mather, J.A. and R.C. Anderson. 1993. Personalities of octopuses (Octopus rubescens). Journal of Comparative Psychology. 107(3):336-340.

Mather, J.A. and R.C. Anderson. 1999. Exploration, play and habituation in octopuses (Octopus dofleini). Journal of Comparative Psychology. 113(3):333-338.

Nolte, J. 1999. The human brain, an introduction to its functional anatomy. Mosby (St. Louis). 606 pp.

Rehling, M.J. 2000. Octopus prey puzzles. The Shape of Enrichment. 9(3)

Sinn, D.L., Perrin, N.A., Mather, J.A., & Anderson, R.C. 2001. Early temperamental traits in an octopus (Octopus bimaculoides). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 115(4):351-364

Sumbre, G., Y. Gutfreund, G. Fiorito, T. Flash and B. Hochner. 2001. Control of octopus arm extension by a peripheral motor program. Science. 293:1845-1848.

Tennesen, M. 1999. Another way of thinking - the octopus is smarter than your average invertebrate. Wildlife Conservation. 102:36-41

Wells, M.J. 1962. Brain and Behaviour in Cephalopods. Heinemann Press (London). 171 pp.

Wells, M.J. 1963. Taste by touch: some experiments with Octopus. Journal of Experimental Biology. 40:187-193.

Wray, G.A., J.S. Levinton, and L.H. Shapiro. 1996. Molecular evidence for deep precambrial divergences among metazoan phyla. Science. 274:586-573

Wells, M.J. 1978. Octopus - Physiology and Behaviour of an Advanced Invertebrate. Chapman Hall (London). 417 pp.

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