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Octopus panhandlers - A TCP Exclusive

<< Cephalopod Articles | By: Dr. Roland C. Anderson

Those of us living in large cities are probably aware of human panhandlers, those down-and-outers asking for spare change on street corners. Some of them have developed elaborate scenarios to soften our hearts, such as declaring themselves homeless or out of work. Others may claim a need for gas, bus or ferry fare, and still others may use a perhaps truthful approach of asking for beer or wine money with a cheery bonhomie.

There are many analogies to human begging seen in the animal world. We are familiar with dogs begging for food, either by the learned behavior of sitting upright on their haunches or by soulful, reproachful looks at the dinner table. Cats may beg to be petted by rubbing our legs. Evolutionarily farther afield, we may be familiar with fish begging for food by clustering at the front of a fish tank as we walk by. Whenever I give a behind-the-scenes tour, I wiggle my fingers seductively at the juvenile rockfish tanks to get them to come to front of the tank to be seen by my guests; this is a form of begging. In addition, many juvenile mammals and birds beg for food from their parents, in captivity and under natural conditions. Baby birds beg for food when their parents return to the nest. They also beg for attention from parents under adverse conditions. Wolf pups beg for milk or food from returning mothers. And crying human babies beg for food or attention. So far, begging has only been described in vertebrates, largely from mammals and birds. Heretofore, begging has not been described in an invertebrate species, but both octopuses and cuttlefish beg, at least for food.

Octopuses in captivity frequently beg for food. Like dogs "sitting up," this is a learned behavior. Octopuses have learned to go to a particular spot in their tanks to expect food, frequently the front or back of a tank, wherever the human access is. Once on that spot, they will be agitated: they will "pace" back and forth, they will be a bright red color - the color of anger or disturbance. They may do "webovers" (a food gathering technique where they throw the web between their arms over a rock or other potential food hiding area) directed toward the surface of the water - the direction they expect the food to come from. They will turn upside-down, exposing their suckers upward, expecting food to come from above. Remember, their suckers are the functional equivalent of human hands, so if they are exposing their suckers upward toward us, it is the same as a hand held upward, expecting a donation. Such color changes and obvious agitation is probably an example of an emotion akin to anger,possibly the only example of an invertebrate showing emotion. The octopus's agitation and begging activities subside once it is fed, and it will not go through these activities until it is hungry again. A similar simpler sort of begging activity is shown by cuttlefish, which come to the front of their tanks expecting food, much as fish do.

I propose that such octopus and cuttlefish begging behaviors are the only examples of begging shown by invertebrates. This is not too surprising. Octopuses are known for their intelligence. Octopuses have been shown to have personalities, they are able to learn simple tasks such as opening jars, and they exhibit play behavior, all behaviors that are examples of intelligence. Therefore, it's not surprising that octopuses and cuttlefish would show begging behaviors, also behaviors of so-called higher vertebrate animals. But one would not expect a snail or an oyster to beg for food, animals which are close relatives of octopuses.

The act of begging is a signal of need, usually to conspecifics, but it can be directed at other species, as in the case of human-animal interactions. It is difficult to compare a baby robin begging for food from an arriving parent to the learned behavior of a cat rubbing your legs begging to be petted or the learned behavior of an octopus agitatedly pacing at the front of its tank. But these behaviors are all signals of need, signals from different animals of so-called higher intelligence, and since octopuses have proven themselves intelligent, it is not surprising to find that they also exhibit begging behavior.

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The Cephalopod Page (TCP), © Copyright 1995-2018, was created and is maintained by Dr. James B. Wood, Associate Director of the Waikiki Aquarium which is part of the University of Hawaii. Please see the FAQs page for cephalopod questions, Marine Invertebrates of Bermuda for information on other invertebrates, and and the Census of Marine Life for general information on marine biology.