Pharyngula

Playful, clever octopods

Awww, it’s a charming little story about the intelligence of the octopus:

Ah, the creepy-crawly creature, the swarming arms, that deep-sea demeanor. This is the bearer of intelligence?

“That was my attitude, too,” confesses science writer Eugene Linden, who has written about animal intelligence since the 1970s and had focused, mostly, on the “big-brained” creatures such as apes, dolphins, elephants and whales. “I shared all the prejudices everybody else has.”

Then he started hearing octopus stories. Like how they can open screw-top jars and hamster balls and child-proof caps. They can do mazes and learn shapes and distinguish colors and use tools.

“They play,” says Jennifer Mather, a psychologist and octopus expert at Canada’s University of Lethbridge.

There are even hints that octopuses have a sense of humor, Linden says.

He talks about the finicky octopus who, in a lab in Pennsylvania, was served slightly spoiled shrimp. The octopus refused to finish its dinner, and when the feeding researcher returned to its tank, the octopus made eye contact with her, then meaningfully pushed all the shrimp down the drain.

A great deal of that is the interpretation of the human observer, of course; it could be the octopus isn’t making a joke at all, but is instead mentally noting the face of the offending person and promising itself to make her pay someday. But still, it’s clear that some wonderfully sophisticated things are going on inside those big invertebrate brains.

(Thanks to Mrs Coulter)