Tuesday, July 13, 2010
I will be the first to admit that I am not a big sports fan except when the Olympics are on, and only then do I become a sports fanatic. I will watch anything and everything I get my hands on, and I become a bit obsessed.
One sport I have never become that enthusiastic about is the World Cup of soccer, at least, not until this year. Why? Well, it has to do with an octopus named Paul located in Oberhausen, Germany.
Paul is the famous "oracle octopus" that was able to make eight correct predictions of who would win matches in the world cup, including the final match between the Netherlands and Spain. The odds of that being just chance are less than 0.004 per cent, which is very impressive. But it has re-invigorated a very interesting scientific debate within animal behaviourist and zoology circles: are octopuses intelligent?
Intelligence is a difficult word to place on an animal that differs so largely from us. You just cannot give an octopus an IQ test, or ask it complex questions to determine how smart it is. Simply put, its brain is too different than ours to quantify it in any standard way, similar with dogs or crows.
So, how can you determine if an octopus is intelligent, and not simply reacting?
I remember back in second year biology, my professor told the class about how cephalopods are much more intelligent than we think, and how they can solve complex problems that should be beyond the grasp of an invertebrate. As it turns out, pound for pound, they have a larger brain to body mass ratio than fish and reptiles (but birds and mammals are still higher). As well, some research has shown that the hemispheres within the octopus brain are, in many ways, similar to our own.
For instance, Jennifer Mather, a Canadian biologist, has stated that octopuses possess something that is known as "primary consciousness." While it is not consciousness like we know it, she believes that octopuses can combine all their sense together to form a coherent picture, and that they may even engage in what was once thought to be a strictly mammalian trait – play.
There is an octopus in Coburg, Germany (about five hours away from Paul's home of Oberhausen) named Otto that has figured out a way to get rid of an annoying light over his tank. According to the UK Telegraph, Otto would extinguish the light by climbing out onto the rim of his tank and squirting a jet of water in its direction, completely short-circuiting the light. But that's not all the mischief that Otto was doing.
The director of the Sea Star Aquarium, where Otto is located, said that he has been seen doing some rather odd things. "Once we saw him juggling the hermit crabs in his tank, another time he threw stones against the glass damaging it. And from time to time he completely re-arranges his tank to make it suit his own taste better - much to the distress of his fellow tank inhabitants."
And lastly, I spoke to a source at a major zoo that said he had heard that one of the octopuses in his care has actually sneaked out of its tank, crossed the floor, entered another tank, ate the fish within that tank, and then exited and returned to his own tank. All that was left were dead fish in that tank and streaks of water along the floor.
Octopuses also appear to be able to recognize geographic landmarks according to a paper from Jean Boal and her colleagues at Millersville University. The test subjects were able to successfully navigate a maze to locate the hidden exit quickly, but that is not the impressive part.
Boal tested the octopuses in two separate mazes one after the other, so in essence, the animals learned how to navigate two completely different geographies at the same time. This shows that octopuses can indeed learn.
But, does that mean that they are intelligent?
Compared to humans, no they aren't. But remember this; we would fail spectacularly on an octopus intelligence test.
For more information on octopus intelligence, check out these links:Can an octopus learn geography?
Mather's paper on octopus consciousness can be found here.
is a very interesting article from Discover magazine about intelligence in octopuses.