Octopuses: playful, choosy and smarter than you think

Peter Godfrey-Smith explores the great depths of cephalopod intelligence in his book Other Minds, now shortlisted for the 2017 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize.

12th September 2017
Octopuses: playful, choosy and smarter than you think © Getty

The most famous octopus anecdotes are tales of escape and thievery, in which octopuses in aquariums raid neighboring tanks at night for food.  Those stories, despite their charm, are not especially indicative of high intelligence. Neighboring tanks are not so different from tide pools, even though the entrance and exit take more effort.  Here is a behavior I find more intriguing. Octopuses in at least two aquariums have learned to turn off the lights by squirting jets of water at the bulbs when no one is watching, and short- circuiting the power supply. At the University of Otago in New Zealand, this became so expensive that the octopus had to be released back to the wild. A lab in Germany had the same problem. This seems very smart indeed. However, one can also sketch an explanation which may partially deflate the story. Octopuses don’t like bright lights, and they squirt jets of water at all sorts of things that annoy them (as Peter Dews discovered). So squirting water at lights might not be something that requires much explanation. Also, octopuses are more likely to roam far enough away from their dens to squirt at this particular target when no humans are around. On the other hand, both the stories of this kind that I’ve seen give the impression that the octopus learned very quickly how well this behavior works— that it’s worth getting into position and aiming right at the light, to turn it out. It should be possible to set up an experiment that tests some of the various possible explanations for the behavior.

This case illustrates a more general fact: octopuses have an ability to adapt to the special circumstances of captivity and their interaction with human keepers. Octopuses in the wild are fairly solitary animals. Their social life, in most species, is thought to be minimal (though later I’ll look at exceptions to this pattern). In the lab, however, they are often quick to get the hang of how life works in their new circumstances. For example, it has long appeared that captive octopuses can recognize and behave differently toward individual human keepers. Stories of this kind have been coming out of different labs for years. Initially it all seemed anecdotal. In the same lab in New Zealand that had the “lights- out” problem, an octopus took a dislike to one member of the lab staff, for no obvious reason, and whenever that person passed by on the walkway behind the tank she received a jet of half a gallon of water in the back of her neck. Shelley Adamo, of Dalhousie University, had one cuttlefish who reliably squirted streams of water at all new visitors to the lab, and not at people who were often around. In 2010, an experiment confirmed that giant Pacific octopuses can indeed recognize individual humans, and can do this even when the humans are wearing identical uniforms.

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Stefan Linquist, a philosopher who once studied octopus behavior in the lab, puts it like this: “When you work with fish, they have no idea they are in a tank, somewhere unnatural. With octopuses it is totally different. They know that they are inside this special place, and you are outside it. All their behaviors are affected by their awareness of captivity.” Linquist’s octopuses would mess around with their tank, manipulating and testing it. Linquist had a problem with octopuses deliberately plugging the outflow valves on the tanks by poking in their arms, perhaps to increase the water level. Of course, this flooded the entire lab.

Another tale that illustrates Linquist’s point was told to me by Jean Boal, of Millersville University in Pennsylvania. Boal has a reputation as one of the most rigorous and critical of cephalopod researchers. She is known for her meticulous experimental designs, and her insistence that “cognition” or “thought” in these animals should be hypothesized only when experimental results cannot be explained in any simpler way. But like many researchers, she has a few tales of behaviors that are baffling in what they seem to show about the inner lives of these animals. One of these incidents has stayed in her mind for over a decade. Octopuses love to eat crabs, but in the lab they are often fed on thawed- out frozen shrimp or squid. It takes octopuses a while to get used to these second- rate foods, but eventually they do. One day Boal was walking down a row of tanks, feeding each octopus a piece of thawed squid as she passed. On reaching the end of the row, she walked back the way she’d come. The octopus in the first tank, though, seemed to be waiting for her. It had not eaten its squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously. As Boal stood there, the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow pipe, watching her all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain. 

This story, along with all the tales of octopuses squirting experimenters, reminded me of something I’d seen myself. Captive octopuses often try to escape, and when they do, they seem unerringly able to pick the one moment you aren’t watching them. If you have an octopus in a bucket of water, for example, it will often look content enough in there, but if your attention strays for a second, when you look back there will be an octopus quietly crawling across the floor.

I thought I might be imagining this tendency, until I heard a talk a few years ago given by David Scheel, who works with octopuses full- time. He, too, said that octopuses seem to track in subtle ways whether he is watching them or not, and they make their move when he isn’t. I suppose this makes sense as a natural behavior in octopuses; you want to make a run for it when the barracuda is not looking at you, rather than when he is. But the fact that octopuses can so quickly do this with humans—both with scuba mask and without—is impressive.

As stories of this kind accumulate, an explanation suggests itself for the mixed results with octopuses in some standard learning experiments. It’s often said that they don’t do especially well in these experiments because the behaviors required are unnatural. (Hanlon and Messenger said this about the Dews experiment with the lever pulling, for example.) But octopus behavior in laboratory settings indicates that “unnatural” is often no problem for them. Octopuses can open screw-cap jars for food, and one has even been filmed opening such a jar from the inside. Behaviors don’t get much more unnatural than that. I think the problems with the old Peter Dews experiment, such as they were, came in part from the assumption that an octopus would be interested in pulling a lever repeatedly to get pieces of sardine, collecting piece after piece of this second- rate food. Rats and pigeons will do things like that, but octopuses take a while to deal with each item of food, probably can’t cram themselves, and tend to lose interest. For at least some of them, taking the lamp down from above the tank and hauling it back to the den— that is more interesting. So is squirting the experimenters.

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In response to the difficulty of motivating the animals, some researchers, regrettably, have used negative reinforcement— electric shocks— more freely than they would with other animals. Quite a lot of the early work done in the Naples Zoological Station treated octopuses badly. Not only were electric shocks used, but many experiments included the removal of parts of the octopus’s brain, or the cutting of important nerves, just to see what the octopus would do when it woke up.  Until recently, octopuses could also be operated on without anesthetic. As invertebrates, they were not covered by animal cruelty rules. Many of these early experiments make for distressing reading for someone who regards octopuses as sentient beings. Over the last decade, however, octopuses have often been listed as a kind of “honorary vertebrate” in rules governing their treatment in experiments, especially in the European Union. This is a step forward.

Another octopus behavior that has made its way from anecdote to experimental investigation is play— interacting with objects just for the sake of it. An innovator in cephalopod research, Jennifer Mather, along with Roland Anderson of the Seattle Aquarium, did the first studies of this behavior, and it’s now been investigated in detail. Some individual octopuses— and only some—will spend time blowing pill bottles around their tank with their jet, “bouncing” the bottle back and forth on the stream of water coming from the tank’s intake valve. In general, the initial interest an octopus takes in any new object is gustatory— can I eat it? But once an object is found to be inedible, that does not always mean it’s uninteresting.

The winner of the 2017 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize will be revealed on 19 September.

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith is available now (£20, Harper Collins)Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith is available now (£20, Harper Collins)