Octopus Intelligence: Why We Really Need to Start Paying Attention to Cephalopods

Let’s discuss the plural of octopus first before there’s any further mention of the word. It’s generally acknowledged that you may pluralize octopus as octopi, octopuses, or octopodes equally correctly. For the purposes of this article, “octopuses” will be used in order to dispel any potential confusion. Additionally, “cephalopods” refers to not only octopuses but also squids and cuttlefish.

Being able to debate about (arguably silly) things such as how to pluralize a noun appropriately given its Latin roots may make humankind feel pretty darn intelligent. However, for centuries humans have continually underestimated and misunderstood the oftentimes equally impressive and sizable intellects of animals. This includes octopuses, which have surfaced in recent decades as a fascinating study in invertebrate intelligence. These amazing creatueres have problem solving skills and mesmerizingly different biological structures enough to jolt any average human ignorant of their prowess.


Aliens from Our World

You don’t have to be a marine biologist to pick up that octopuses are a little different from land mammals. An octopus has eight arms and its beaked mouth can be found at the center point in those arms. Octopuses have neither an internal nor an external skeleton and are capable of expelling ink to confuse hungry predators. They inhabit a variety of regions in the oceans from coral reefs to the ocean floor, and they’re all venomous and capable of camouflaging themselves and bluffing in order to ward off enemies.


Demonstrated Intelligence

A complete understanding of the level of intellect octopuses have eludes scientists to this day. There are many debates over how extensive that intellect is, but there are also many key examples that point to their rather heightened intelligence. For instance, octopuses are known for these following things:

  • Succeeding in maze experiments
  • Succeeding in problem-solving experiments
  • Short-term and long-term memory
  • Observational learning
  • Playing catch with toys through using water currents
  • Opening holds of fishing boats for crabs
  • Using tools like coconut shells
  • Distinguishing between different shapes and patterns
  • Mimicking other sea animal behavior

These are only to name a few, and the least controversial. Octopuses may not be so easy to observe as an animal like Alex the parrot, but when they are, scientists find that they are equally, if not more, capable than impressive animals like these.


Brain Teaser

With the largest brains of any invertebrate, octopuses have proportionally bigger brains than most of the largest dinosaurs as well as radically complex nervous systems. They have 130 million neurons in their brains, whereas humans have 100 billion. Don’t sniff at that too quickly- three-fifths of those neurons are in the octopus’s arms, not its “brain,” and we can’t exactly claim to be that well-balanced. If you cut off an octopus’s arm, that arm will try to crawl away on its own, and if it meets food, it will try to put it into the place where its mouth would be had its arm not been cut off. Believe it. Scientists are uncertain as to why cephalopods would have need of such impressive intelligence capacities, but there are many theories regarding their evolution and the loss of their shell.


One of These Things Doesn’t Belong

All of this is without mentioning perhaps the most exciting and shocking feature of the octopus: its ability to change its own color in order to camouflage itself from predators. Octopuses use three layers of three different types of cells that are near their skin’s surface. The top layer has yellows, reds, browns and blacks, while the middle layer has blues, greens, and golds. The bottom layer reflects, passively, background light. Amazing? Yes. But what is even more amazing is the octopus’s ability to decide what to turn itself into and what behavior patterns to pair that color with. Octopuses have been known to “transform” themselves into sea creatures ranging from lionfish to eels. There are also exciting new studies coming out of the University of Washington and the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory suggesting that cephalopods may be able to see with their skin.


Now What?

While most of us probably won’t have the chance to go and study cephalopod intelligence firsthand on the ocean floors, we do all have the ability to expand our own understanding and appreciation of fellow Earthling intelligence wherever we are. You don’t have to skip out on the octopus at the Asian buffet next time you go, but it might indeed be worth your time to consider how it is that octopus got there and what it might have been doing otherwise.