How Smart Is the Octopus?

(iStockphoto)

We’ve blogged extensively about the often human-like behavior of monkeys, but here’s another animal that may give monkeys a run for their money: the octopus.

“Only recently have scientists accorded chimpanzees, so closely related to humans we can share blood transfusions, the dignity of having a mind,” writes Sy Montgomery in a new article for Orion Magazine. “But now, increasingly, researchers who study octopuses are convinced that these boneless, alien animals—creatures whose ancestors diverged from the lineage that would lead to ours roughly 500 to 700 million years ago—have developed intelligence, emotions, and individual personalities.”  

Here’s one example of the animal’s intelligence:

One octopus Mather was watching had just returned home and was cleaning the front of the den with its arms. Then, suddenly, it left the den, crawled a meter away, picked up one particular rock and placed the rock in front of the den. Two minutes later, the octopus ventured forth to select a second rock. Then it chose a third. Attaching suckers to all the rocks, the octopus carried the load home, slid through the den opening, and carefully arranged the three objects in front. Then it went to sleep. What the octopus was thinking seemed obvious: “Three rocks are enough. Good night!”

The scene has stayed with Mather. The octopus “must have had some concept,” she said, “of what it wanted to make itself feel safe enough to go to sleep.” And the octopus knew how to get what it wanted: by employing foresight, planning—and perhaps even tool use.

Octupuses are also apparently quite playful, another mark of intelligence:

In another experiment, Anderson gave octopuses plastic pill bottles painted different shades and with different textures to see which evoked more interest. Usually each octopus would grasp a bottle to see if it were edible and then cast it off. But to his astonishment, Anderson saw one of the octopuses doing something striking: she was blowing carefully modulated jets of water from her funnel to send the bottle to the other end of her aquarium, where the water flow sent it back to her. She repeated the action twenty times. By the eighteenth time, Anderson was already on the phone with Mather with the news: “She’s bouncing the ball!”

This octopus wasn’t the only one to use the bottle as a toy. Another octopus in the study also shot water at the bottle, sending it back and forth across the water’s surface, rather than circling the tank. Anderson’s observations were reported in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. “This fit all the criteria for play behavior,” said Anderson. “Only intelligent animals play—animals like crows and chimps, dogs and humans.”

No word yet on how they feel about various forms of currency.

And yes, crows are apparently very intelligent. Here’s a 2008 TED talk about a vending machine for crows; and a 2006 National Geographic piece about a book that claims they have “human-like” intelligence.


Nosybear

Drew Soicher will now have them predicting the outcomes of Broncos games. They can't do worse than that seal.

Trevor

In the UK, the Home Office issues licences to scientists to experiment on animals. Animals not permitted as subjects under said licence are:
1) humans
2) monkeys & apes
3) certain species of squid / octopus

So, in this way at least, the Home Office has grouped certain cephalopods in with simians / primates

derric

Wow, now I feel kinda bad for eating them with my sushi - well, not *too* bad, because they really are yummy.

Greg

Animals can be both more intelligent, and less intelligent, than we give them credit for. There's a great example of seemingly intelligent behavior from digger wasps (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digger_wasp) that turns out to be more like "programming" which it's easy to force into an infinite loop (Douglas Hofstadter writes about this "sphexishness"). We humans have an incredible ability to anthropomorphize human-like feelings and motivations into animal behavior.

On the other hand, we're also good at not seeing complicated animal behavior when it occurs, so I bet that on average, animals are more intelligent than we give them credit for. We just need to exercise caution in ascribing intelligence to some actions.

Eric M. Jones.

Well, God has a few backup creatures like the octopus to take over when Homo sapiens wipe themselves out. Bears are pretty smart too. Many people do not appreciate the influence of bears on human architecture. Whatever humans have to eat, a bear will eat too, and they know how to get it.

Catherine in Athens

Not just smart, but self-sacrificing too. See:
http://blog.nus.edu.sg/lsm1303student2010/2010/04/03/the-extremely-scarifying-mother/

IE

> No word yet on how they feel about various forms of currency.
If they refuse to touch Euro, then we'll know for sure that they are pretty intelligent.

Enter your name...

I've heard that they have an unusual reaction to mirrors. Unlike most animals, they don't believe that their reflection is another octopus, but unlike chimps and humans, they don't quite "get it", either.

caleb b

Question for Editor:

Did you have to look up whether it was correct to use Octopuses, Octopi, or Octopodes? If so, what was the general consensus on what was correct before you looked it up?

Neil

I heard a story from the Vancouver, BC where a number of crabs were being killed in their tanks. No one could figure out what was happening, until they set up cameras to see what was going on. Apparently, the resident octopus was escaping from its own tank, making it's way across the floor into the tank with the crabs eating them, and making its way back.

There was of course a mesh wire cover over each of the tanks, but apparently the gaps were just big enough for the octopus to squeeze through.

I can't confirm this story 100%, but it came from a life-long employee of the aquarium.

skh.pcola

Octopus eating a shark: http://youtu.be/p9A-oxUMAy8

Maggie

I agree that 'only' intelligent animals play. But it appears to me that LOTS of animals have a capacity for conceptualizing, imagining, empathizing, and other tasks of intelligence.

Goats, for example, are extremely playful, as are the young of various mammals including bovines (commonly called 'cows' and not thought very smart), horses, cats, dogs, mice ...

When I was a young genetics student, I did a poor job of anesthetizing my fruit flies so I could look at their sleeping bodies in detail under my microscope. A few of them began to struggle to wakefulness before I was finished. Imagine my surprise at finding that the chief activity of the awakening ones was not escape, but rather it was protecting their sleeping comrades from the intrusions of my soft sable brush.

Jonny Lereaux

They are smart - they get into my prawn traps all the time leaving nothing but shells behind - ie they can also get out of the trap when they are finished- today one was in a trap when I pulled it and the lid of the bait holder was off - it was a screw on lid...........

paloma

this is a really interesting article.
octopuses are really interesting creatures.
their intelligence really fascinates me.