Playmate of the Week: Mr Potato Head

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Louis, the giant pacific octopus, Octopus dofleini, cuddles his Mr Potato Head.

The 1.8meter-wide (6 foot) animal is so attached to Mr Potato Head that he
becomes aggressive when aquarium staff try to remove it from his tank.

Image: Apex.

Who would have thought that Mr Potato Head would turn out to be such a charmer? Certainly not I, but this morning, I unexpectedly ran across a news story about a giant Pacific octopus, Octopus dofleini, that lives in an aquarium in the UK. Like most highly-intelligent captive animals, this octopus, Louis, gets easily bored, so his keepers deal with that problem by providing him with "environmental enrichment". In short, they hide seafood inside a variety of objects to keep him occupied.

As any pet owner or zoo keeper can tell you, environmental enrichment, which is sometimes referred to as behavioral enrichment, is the practice of giving captive animals a variety of objects to interact with. Toys, if you will.

The purpose of environmental enrichment is to improve an animal's quality of life by keeping them from becoming hopelessly bored. These objects stimulate physical and mental activity and natural behaviors, so destructive or repetitive behaviors, such as feather picking or cage pacing, are reduced or prevented. Environmental enrichment benefits a variety of animals, ranging from pet cats and dogs to elephants and primates and birds, especially parrots. But what about octopus? Do octopus play with toys?

Well, yes, they do, according to Jennifer Mather, a psychologist and octopus expert at Canada's University of Lethbridge. But one doesn't need to be an octopus expert to realize that the charming and suave Mr Potato Head (right) would be strong candidate for a favorite toy.

"Its bright colors, strange shape and moveable parts make it fascinating for Louis," observed Matt Slater at Newquay's Blue Reef Aquarium in Cornwall, Great Britain.

"The secret space within Mr Potato Head allows us to hide tasty treats like fresh crab inside and that perhaps more than anything has resulted in him becoming such a hit."

Further searching on the internet reveals that Louis's attraction to Mr Potato Head is not unique in the octopus world. A year and a half ago, another story was published about Shania (below), a young female giant Pacific octopus who lives at the National Aquarium in Washington DC. Shania apparently enjoys snuggling with her Mr Potato Head even more than eating, although she also enjoys holding hands with her (human) keeper and personal enrichment tutor, Rick Quintero.

A smelt-filled Mr. Potato Head is sacrificed to Shania the giant Pacific octopus, Octopus dofleini. Octopus are highly intelligent and thus, easily bored, sea creatures that require intellectual stimulation.

Image: Bill O'Leary (The Washington Post) [larger view]

Giant Pacific octopuses are the largest octopus species. For example, Louis, who is 18 months old, measures about 1.8 meters (6 feet) across. Giant Pacific octopus are also the most intelligent members of the cephalopod family.

"Louis is well known for his curiosity and intelligence," agrees Slater.

To keep octopus occupied each day, keepers put fresh crab, shrimp or fish meat inside all sorts of objects from hamster balls, glass jars with screw-top lids, to rubber toys and even fishing floats to challenge their intelligent charges.

"We've devised a series of puzzles, games and toys to ensure he's getting the mental stimulation he needs, but Mr Potato Head is definitely his favorite at the moment."

Streaming video of another octopus playing with an assortment of toys;


BBCNews (quotes)

MetroNews (quotes, Louis image)

WaPo (quotes, Shania image)


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Cephalopods are my favorite. I have watched other YouTube videos of octopus antics - there is one which shows one climbing out of his aquarium, traveling over the lab floor and climbing up on a table to reach a coveted glass jar. Then he opens the lid, removes the contents and takes a leisurely stroll back to his aquarium.

I would love to be able to work around them. What a fun job that would be! Thanks for sharing this. I have a brand new appreciation for Mr. Potatoheads. I wonder if any of the tentacled toy manipulators have changed the way their potatoheads are adorned?

according to all the stories i read this morning, they do remove some of the mr potato head parts (an ear here, an eye there), and twist other parts (a leg, an arm) around to please themselves.

Annie, do you have a link to the YouTube video you described?

By Ambitwistor (not verified) on 11 Jan 2008 #permalink

I'm looking for it over on YouTube, but it was several months ago, and so far, I've found many fascinating videos of octopuses doing interesting things, but I haven't found the oceanographer's lab video. If I do rediscover it, I'll post the link here.

Hey, have you shown this article to PZ?

Mark H writes a fantastic Marine Life series on DailyKos. I am providing the link to his last post about Violet, his now deceased rescued octopus and the subject of several fascinating essays and videos. Although she isn't the star of the traveling octopus video, she does have toys, games and feats of prowess and flexibility recorded for posterity and your delight. Enjoy.