Twenty-five octopuses in Europe are having an I Love the 80s moment. The octopuses have been given Rubik’s Cubes-those annoying puzzles that baffled and defeated countless people during the 1980s-as well as balls and other toys to play with. Researchers are hoping to determine whether octopuses, like humans, have a dominant arm-er, tentacle-or if they are “octidextrous.”
I won’t be surprised if one of these brainy cephalopods actually solves the Rubik’s Cube puzzle in the process.
While octopuses might not fare well on a standard IQ test, it’s not because they’re dumb, explains Slate.com science writer Carl Zimmer, “but because their behavior is the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution under radically different conditions than the ones under which our own brains evolved.”
In the underwater world, octopuses and their cephalopod cousins, squid and cuttlefish, are smart cookies.
Researchers have discovered that octopuses have excellent memories; they play, just like dolphins and dogs; and they can learn by watching others. One octopus in a German zoo learned how to open jars of shrimp by copying zoo workers.
They are also quick studies when it comes to geography. Jean Boal and her colleagues at Millersville University in Pennsylvania put octopuses in tanks with assorted landmarks, such as plates of pebbles and plastic jugs. After just a few trials, the octopuses knew the quickest path to an exit hidden in the tank. What’s even more impressive: They were concurrently taught two completely different mazes but had no trouble keeping track of which was which.
In a paper published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, Canadian biologist Jennifer Mather argues that octopuses combine their memories and perceptions to get a feel for what is happening to them at any given moment. In other words, they possess primary consciousness.
They may also possess language. Octopuses’ cousins, the cuttlefish, have dazzled researchers for years with their ability to “disappear” in the blink of an eye. These masters of camouflage change colors, the patterns on their bodies and even the texture of their skin to blend seamlessly into the background-a pretty neat trick for animals who are colorblind and see in shades of green.
But, say researchers, these swimming slide shows are more than just a form of disguise: They are how cephalopods communicate. Dr. Roger Hanlon of the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts has documented 40 different cuttlefish body patternings, many of which are used to send signals to other animals.
When confronted with a sea bass, for example, cuttlefish flatten their bodies, extend their large frill-like fin and display two dark “eye” spots on their back. The message: “Don’t mess with me-I’m enormous.” But they know this ruse won’t work on crabs, who home in on prey by sensing chemicals in the water: When confronted with a crab, cuttlefish smartly swim away.
Cuttlefish also send secret signals using polarized light that only other cephalopods can see-while remaining fully camouflaged to other species. With this cuttlefish equivalent of invisible ink, they can warn other cephalopods about danger without drawing attention to themselves.
We may never fully realize the depth of these animals’ intelligence. Ten years ago, University of Oregon biologist Nathan Tublitz told New Scientist magazine, “The problem is the limitation of humans, rather than the limitation of the cephalopods.” Not much has changed. Every day, we discover something new about the animals who share our world-elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, fish can tell time, rats giggle when they are tickled-yet we continue to imprison them in zoos, hurt them in painful experiments and turn them into sushi.
Clever cephalopods, like those Rubik’s Cube-playing octopuses in Europe, have proved that they can learn new tricks. Can we, and can be learn democracy?