Where do octopuses fit in the order of things? We can neatly place other animals into categories: furry mammals, either wild or domesticated. Animals raised only for meat. Birds, insects, reptiles. Under the sea, there are fish both predator and prey, crustaceans, whales, dolphins, sharks. We attribute intelligence to some animals, others not so much.
But the octopus?
An eight-armed cephalopod that can teach itself how to unscrew the tops of jars (even child-proof lids), use a coconut shell as a mode of transport or a hiding place,
and change its shape, color, and entire identity within a matter of seconds. (Photos above courtesy of PBS Nova ScienceNow, How Smart is an Octopus).
As Sy Montgomery writes in her beautiful, best-selling book, The Soul of an Octopus, a National Book Award Finalist —
“To blend with its surroundings, or to confuse predators or prey, an octopus can produce spots, stripes, and blotches of color anywhere on its body except its suckers and the lining of its funnel and mantle openings. It can create a light show on its skin. One of several moving patterns the animal can create is called “Passing Cloud” because it’s like a dark cloud passing over the landscape — making the octopus look like it’s moving when it’s not. And of course the octopus can also voluntarily control its skin texture — raising and lowering fleshy projections called papillae — as well as change its overall shape and posture. The sand-dwelling mimic octopus, an Indonesian species, is particularly adept at this. One online video shows the animal altering its body position, color, and skin texture to morph into a flatfish, then several sea snakes, and finally a poisonous lionfish — all in a matter of seconds.” (p. 46)
Montgomery describes octopuses with distinct personalities, some who like to play practical jokes, some who dislike certain people (expressed by squirting water into a person’s face) and love others, some who just want to escape their confines (and find ingenious, and often fatal, ways to do just that). I suspect I’m not the only one who, after reading her book, vowed never to order octopus from a menu again.
We can categorize almost all other animals in relation to our own human brain’s abilities. But so far, the octopus remains beyond compare. Neither its brain nor its nervous system is structurally similar to a human; in fact, most of the octopus’s neurons are found in its arms and those arms can do smart things without receiving any messages from the brain (like cuddle up to a human to either express affection or yank her into the tank).
It’s no wonder we are endlessly fascinated by this creature, and we are endlessly learning from octopuses about our own intelligence.
Some online courses about animal behavior and conservation you may be interested in:
Coursera: Animal Behaviour and Welfare
From University of Edinburgh. Animal welfare has been described as a complex, multi-faceted public policy issue which includes important scientific, ethical, and other dimensions. Improving our understanding of animal welfare, involves the fascinating study of animal behavior as well as the challenge of accessing the emotions of animals.
This course will teach participants how to identify and implement a local service-learning campaign using the Roots & Shoots program model. The service learning curriculum equips participants with teacher resources to discover the differences between service-learning and community service, and apply the Roots & Shoots model to help youth have a voice in identifying and addressing needs in their community. The goal of Roots & Shoots is to develop compassionate leaders to make the world a better place for people, other animals and the environment and to spread Dr. Jane Goodall’s message of hope while facilitating a sense of empowerment that comes from helping others.