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No. 2906:

by Andrew Boyd

Today, alien intelligence. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The makers of science fiction films have given birth to some truly fearsome looking beasts — the creature from the Alien movies comes to mind. However, we need look no further than our own planet for creatures so strange they can send chills down our spines.

The Giant Pacific Octopus has a tip to tip arm span of fifteen feet. Its eight sucker-laden arms convey food to a venomous mouth that houses a barbed tongue and a parrot-like beak — a beak strong enough to crush clams. The octopus's large eyes, about the size and complexity of a human's, stare with intensity as it roams the ocean floors; a boneless contortionist that can squeeze through holes no larger than an orange. If that weren't enough, it camouflages itself by changing color and texture, shoots ink at predators, and re-grows severed arms. 

Alex standing in front of octopus tank

But if we look past these distinctly alien attributes, we find something more. Octopuses ... are smart.

[Wikipedia image by albert kok]

In an essay Deep Intellect, author Sy Montgomery observes that octopuses have learned to open screw top jars — even childproof Tylenol bottles. They quickly learn how to open all kinds of latches, and once they learn, they remember when a similar latch is again encountered. At the Seattle Aquarium, octopuses learned how to unscrew two halves of a plastic ball containing food, and on occasion screwed the ball shut when finished. 

Why re-screw the ball? Octopuses also exhibit signs of play, something researchers only associate with intelligence. And the animals have distinct personalities; calm, impetuous, excitable. Aquarium caretakers develop intimate relationships with their wards. Octopuses in captivity will surface when recognizing a trusted keeper and engage in gentle, ritual touching, changing color to show their emotion. They reserve menacing colors and jets of water for people they don't like.

red octopus photograph
[Wikipedia image by SUBnormali Team]

What goes on inside the minds of these curious creatures? The Giant Pacific octopus has a brain the size of a walnut. But sixty percent of the animal's neurons aren't in its brain, but in its arms. And here's something to think about. If we follow our genetic tree back to the time where we shared a common ancestor with the octopus, that common ancestor didn't have a brain. Octopus brains have evolved in their own unique way. Writes one philosopher, "Octopuses are a [completely] separate experiment in the evolution of the mind," to which he adds, "Meeting an octopus is like meeting an intelligent alien."

Fortunately, as fearsome as they may seem, these aliens come in peace.

[audio: Octopus's Garden]

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

TED talk: A Truly Astonishing Natural Illusion - Disappearing Octopus

Notes and references:

Giant Octopus: Fact Sheet. From the website of the Alaska Pacific University Department of Marine Biology.

S. Montgomery. 'Deep Intellect.' Orion Magazine. November/December, 2011.

The picture of the octopus at the Seattle Aquarium is by E. A. Boyd. The remaining pictures are from Wikimedia Commons.

This episode first aired on September 19, 2013.