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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.


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