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Paul the octopus – scientific or psychic?

This foreseeing cephalopod is smart, but probably just more a fan of flags in this case.

So Paul was right. As Spain slipped in a last minute goal to claim the World Cup last night, the real winner was the oracle octopus that has become the World’s most (and only?) famous cephalopod through his successful football result predictions.

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Octopuses (not octopi, I double-checked that one) are considered to be the most intelligent invertebrates as they can be trained for learning and memory tasks. Last December, scientists found the first evidence of tool use in veined octopuses that excavated coconut shells from the sea floor and used them for shelter.

This is all very clever, but assuming he’s not actually psychic, what factors could have made Paul head for the Spanish flag when predicting last night’s outcome? Marine biologists think octopuses are attracted to strong patterns of horizontal stripes, all found on the flags of countries Paul has favoured – Germany, Spain and Serbia in the group stages.

The media has quietly ignored the fact that Paul almost always chooses his home country, Germany. Patriotism aside, he’s likely to be heading to the flag through habit. He sees it all the time as, with the exception of last night’s final, the Germans only use him to predict games they are involved in. Many studies reveal octopuses to have long-term memory, so the repeated experience of finding a mussel in a box under a German flag could understandably encourage Paul to head for The Fatherland again.

In fact he’s chosen to open the German box in 11 out of the 13 games involving Germany that he’s been consulted on.

But what of Paul’s devastating switch to Serbia when they played Germany in the group stages, and Spain when Germany wasn’t in the final? He’s a common octopus (octopus vulgaris) so is almost certainly colour blind according to recent behavioural studies, but he can distinguish brightness.

The German flag is bright but the Spanish flag has a fatter yellow stripe in the centre, perhaps explaining Paul’s attraction to Spain. Similarly, the Serbian flag is a vivid white, blue and red as well as having those all-important horizontal stripes.

Of course, you can keep betting on Paul, but if you prefer your divination to be land-based, a more scientific prediction used a mathematical technique called Graph Theory. Researchers at Queen Mary, University of London collected ball-passing data from all of the World Cup games and analysed it to reveal different teams styles of play. They picked Spain to win too.


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