Octopuses - Intelligent, but do they possess consciousness?
On World Octopus Day let us appreciate the intelligence of this animal. Usually perceived as an odd, alien-like creature, octopuses are in fact thought to be the most intelligent invertebrate. These Cephalopods are an important example of advanced cognitive evolution. They are even believed to have been the first intelligent beings on the planet. Due to this intellect, Cephalopods are commonly protected by animal testing regulations which are not usually applied to invertebrates. In UK law they are managed under special protection governing the licensing of animal experiments. Octopuses are however still poorly understood with more research needed to understand the evolution and extent of their intelligence.
Mimicry, Ball Games and a Psychic Octopus
Octopuses have been studied to possess the ability of mimicry, play, dexterity, a personality and even facial recognition. Some are so intelligent they have even outwitted their tank keepers. Take Otto the octopus for example from the Sea Star Aquarium in Coburg. Believed to have been irritated by the bright lights shining into his aquarium he climbed out onto the rim of the tank and squirted a jet of water into the light, short-circuiting it. Otto was even known to juggle hermit crabs, throw stones against his glass tank damaging it and rearranged his surroundings to his personal taste. Another example, at Santa Monica Pier Aquarium in California, a two-spotted octopus had disassembled a water recycling valve and directed a tube to spew water out of the tank for 10 hours, with keepers finding 750 litres of seawater soaking sensitive flooring. Another octopus, Olive, used tools to hide. She made her nest gathering stones to camouflage the entrance to her den. And we must have all heard of Paul the psychic octopus predicting the results of football games in the 2010 World Cup!
Only intelligent animals will play and use tools in this manner. In the octopus’s case this is due to the presence of its brain’s spatial learning, navigational and dexterity ability. Thus they are able to manipulate objects as tools as humans do, want to play if they are bored and recognise an opportunity like at the Seattle Aquarium where an octopus used a pill bottle as its own toy, like a ball. It blew jets of water at the bottle causing it to move over the tank’s water pump returning the bottle back to the octopus, in theory keeping itself amused. The Thaumoctopus mimicus is capable of impersonating species most commonly the sea snake, lion fish and flat fish. It uses chromatophores to change colour as well as being able to change shape and mimic behaviour. Take a look at some videos of Thaumoctopus mimicus mimicry you won’t believe your eyes!
Researchers have sequenced and studied the entire 2.7 billion letters of the octopus’s genetic code gathering more insight to the reasons behind its advanced intelligence compared to other invertebrates. Though the octopus has a smaller genome compared to that of humans, it has approximately 10,000 more genes (totaling 33,000). However three-fifths of an octopus's neurons are not in the brain; they're in its arms. This of course helps with dexterity, navigation and problem solving which 'lightens the cognitive coordination demands and allows octopuses to let their arms do some of the "thinking"' It has been studied that when one of an octopus’s arms was detached it could still move and catch prey. Scientists have discovered several gene types within its genome that are more expanded or advanced compared to other vertebrate which are key for a higher level of‘neuronal complexity’. In fact octopuses have the highest brain to body mass ratio of all invertebrates. This genome has allowed the octopus to thrive and survive.
So Why Evolve Such Large Brains?
There have been many reasons thrown out there for the exact cause of this incredible Cephalopod intelligence. It is still a heavy point of debate.
One theory is that the tropical coral reef on which many octopuses live is the most complex environment in the world. Due to the large variety of situations, with lots of different kinds of prey and predators, octopuses need to be adapted to cope.
One theory from Dr Jennifer Mather is the loss of the octopus’s ancestral shell. By losing the shell it allowed the octopus to be more mobile. As they have lost the shell, they have literally lost their armour, therefore increasing the need to evolve to be smart; to solve ecological problems in order to survive. Exertion of selection pressures increasing demands on its intelligence to find different hunting and evasive strategies. For hunting, new techniques needed such as camouflage ‘stalk and ambush’, quick chase and the ability to crawl out of water. For evasive manoeuvres, warning colouration, to changing colour and shape to camouflage and fortifying its nest with rocks. Therefore only the smartest of octopuses will survive.
So this begs the question, with such high intelligence and with many similarities to humans: do octopuses possess consciousness? Though they are believed to feel pain, have personalities, play and can recognise people, it is currently still unknown if they are ‘self aware’. Further study is needed to uncover the hidden truths about these fascinating creatures.