In a German aquarium this summer, Paul the Octopus, successfully picked the winner of 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer matches being held in South Africa eight times in a row, including correctly noting an upset win by Serbia over Germany, but then subsequently predicting Germany’s rebound to winning ways until eventually Germany lost to Spain, the ultimate world cup winner, an outcome Paul had also predicted. Click on the following for a picture of Paul and a story entitled “Germany's 'Octopus oracle' keeps perfect record,” on the official FIFA website.
Paul’s method of prediction was to select a clam from one of two underwater boxes in one of two adjacent tanks. Each tank was labeled with the national flag of one or the other of opposing soccer teams. Confounding logic, many German fans felt that the pregame choice by the octopus somehow subsequently caused Germany’s defeat, and monitors of German Internet usage showed heightened activity related to researching octopus recipes. The Prime Minister of Spain, in response, promised to send his nation’s equivalent of the US Secret Service to guard Paul and keep him from becoming someone’s dinner. The Russians, out of contention for the World Cup early on, demonstrated greater common sense. The state-supported gaming industry offered 100,000 euros for Paul’s services so as to enable them more scientifically to set odds in international sporting contests. The aquarium, in reaction to all this, announced that Paul would now be going into retirement from sports prognostications, and perhaps would begin a career as a teacher of other young octopuses. This would seem ludicrous, excepting that there have been some papers, in journals as prestigious as Nature, that indicated that octopuses can learn from one another, just by watching the trial and error procedures of one of their kind (Fiorito & Scotto 1992) . Could a weekly column in Sports Illustrated or pr pre-game appearances on ESPN be in the works? Or perhaps has Paul the Octopus all his hands full already.
How Smart Are Octopuses?
There is a general consensus that octopuses are the smartest of invertebrates, and indeed, they may be smarter than many vertebrates. They can negotiate mazes, and retain a memory of successful vs. blocked pathways (Hvorecny et al 2007). The can learn the location of a suitable hideaway in an experimental tank, be transferred from the tank to another for a week, and then instantly find the hideaway in the original tank when they are returned to it. Should this hideaway be closed to them, the octopuses can then be taught a new hideaway’s location, and retain a subsequent memory of it (Boal et al. 2000).
Octopuses have definite favorites in the types of clams or mussels they eat, but it is conditional, with the principal determinant being the degree of difficulty in getting the shell opened or otherwise penetrated (Anderson & Mather 2007). In a three way choice, the easiest to open bivalves were consistently the most eaten, the next easiest to open were second, and the most difficult to open were last. However, food preferences for these same octopuses flipped when all three bivalves were presented in equal numbers in an already-opened state. One of the more difficult-to-open species became the new favorite. However, when ordinarily easy-to-open clams or mussels are glued and wired shut experimentally, octopuses once again shift their preferences in order to minimize effort. What’s important is that they appear to generalize from initial trials in each round of changed circumstances. When they encounter types that they find that are hard to open in a particular round, they avoid them subsequently during that round, saving their energy by redirecting their foraging to easier types.
To bolster the argument for octopuses making conscious adjustments and generalizing knowledge from specific examples, it was found that octopuses switched strategies for getting at the actual meat in a clam or mussel: sometimes pulling the shell apart, sometimes smashing the shell, sometimes drilling through the shell and at other times chipping away at the shell’s rim. All of these represented shifts in tactics to difficulties encountered. When one method did not work for a particular species of clam or mussel, another method might be tried, and once one method proved to be the right tactic for a particular species, that method of penetration became associated with that species. Indeed, in a final grace note to the argument, octopuses apparently learned to target where to drill their holes so as to get to the most vital internal organs of the clam or mussel most directly, so that their subsequent injection of poison would cause the shellfish to open up most quickly.
Can Octopuses Use Tools?
One popular video currently making the rounds on YouTube, entitled “Coconut-Carrying Octopus” www.youtube.com/watch?v=1DoWdHOtlrk and backed by a scientific article in Current Biology (Finn, Tregenza & Norman 2009) shows that octopuses “claim” coconut shells that have been split apart as part of copra processing and been cast into the sea. They have developed a way of stilt walking across the ocean floor with the shell hanging beneath them, so as to transport the half-shells rather long distances to a preferred site, and then fashioned them into rather safe shelters.
Some critics have argued that the use of “found objects” like these shells is not the same as fashioning them into tools, but they have yet to explain away the peculiar habit of octopuses for quite literally playing with Lego toys in aquaria (Kuba et al. 2006) . These toys are in no way food-like objects, nor do they represent prey or serve as practice dummies for hunting. In fact, they resemble nothing in their natural environment, and yet, they become objects of continuing interest in both adult and juvenile octopuses. Octopuses have even learned on their own, how to unscrew jars and bottles.
“Hand-Eye” Coordination & Specialization within the Octopus Brain
One of the relatively recent findings in studies of octopus capabilities is the fact that although they do not have specialized tentacles like squid for trapping prey, they do develop special abilities within their otherwise anatomically identical legs or arms, and that this seems to be done in conjunction with having a favored eye they use for specific tasks. In a series of papers (Byrne, Kuba & Meisel 2004, Byrne et al 2006a, 2006b) it was clearly shown that octopuses have a preferred eye that they use more often than its opposite counterpart, and this seems to correlate with tasks routinely assigned to a given arm or set of arms. Anterior arms were used to probe and reach out for novel objects. Octopuses also seemed to favor a particular arm when trying to negotiate a maze. Moreover some octopuses used different legs or arms for sidewise motion, versus back and forwards, despite the fact that it would take little energy to rotate their bodies and choose a different sequence. This all points to an eye-to-brain-to-arm (or leg) circuitry that indicates that the octopus is capable of designating particular parts of their very large brains to serve differentially, specific functions, much as mammals do.
Do Octopuses Have Distinct Personalities Or Temperaments?
There have been many proponents of the theory that individual octopuses do, in fact, have different personalities. The most vocal in support of this notion are the many aquarium personnel who have observed that some octopuses of the same species are aggressive and easy to anger, while others are shy and gentle. Some are quick learners who love to play while others are seemingly annoyed by changes in routine and defensive about new objects in their watery domains. Some come out from hiding in their aquarium tanks to look right back at the people who are looking at them. Some get along with other octopuses in large tanks while others view others of their kind as intruders that have to be put in their place. Most remarkable are octopuses who habitually break out of their own tanks, traverse the floor to another tank they have been eyeing, enter that tank, and consume all the crabs or clams to be had there, before moving on to another tank or returning to their assigned one.
By far, the most heavily published of experts in areas of octopus intelligence, behavior and temperament is the Canadian researcher Jennifer Mather of the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta, ironically a province that does not even have access to an ocean (She has repeatedly acknowledged the generous access she has been granted over the years to the Seattle Aquarium). This landlocked academic appointment has not stopped her from making the case rather convincingly that individual octopuses develop their personalities or temperaments over time, that genetically related octopuses tend to have similar behavioral traits, and that at least some invertebrates, particularly the category of cephalopods (octopuses, squid and cuttlefish) which have very large brains, use them to explore their environments in a conscious manner, solving problems, and building a memory bank of experiences on which they will depend to improve their lives…….and yes, to have a little fun, now and again.
Tony Stankus, FSLA, email@example.com Life Sciences Librarian, Science Coordinator & Professor
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