Marine Brainiacs

by Gauri Gharpure : If you do a quick Google search typing “octopus camouflage”, you get a number of videos about their amazing ability to blend in with their surroundings, both in terms of colour and texture. They use a few types of cells in their skin to generate a vast array of hues, patterns and texture [1].

What is even more fascinating is that they also mimic other sea creatures. They not only correctly duplicate the colour and patterns, but in this case, also the behaviour and gait. Octopuses (note this plural is hotly contested in the ever-confusing English language) have been found to mimic sea snakes, lionfish, algae, flatfish and what not, as they wave their tentacles in the former two cases, or glide across the sea floor in the latter two [2].

As I learnt about these creatures, I discovered that not only these octopuses are amazing in disguise, but they also show some very remarkable behaviours that are considered to be hallmarks of intelligence. They used cues from the environment to decide and implement the strategy of either camouflage or mimicry accordingly. In short, they decide which strategy is to be employed and when. This ability is rarely seen in other organisms, and the fact that an invertebrate (often understudied in cognitive studies) and an antisocial animal (since social animals are speculated to be more likely to show intelligence) is just mind-blowing. Do read the paper by Manuel-Urena Gomez Moreno describing the cognition and higher-level intelligence demonstrated by a very well-studies species of octopus [3]. Some species even use objects (sea shells, coconut shells) as tools to maneuver in the world around them [4].

A few years ago, I came to know that not only octopuses, but cuttlefish, another marine cephalopod, show such type of behaviour and intelligence. A paper was published recently that studied cuttlefish and their cognitive abilities [5]. They show that these animals can let go of the currently available reward and tolerate some delay to get a much larger reward. Thus, they show the ability of self-control. Do read the entire paper for exciting details. As a side note, Shannon misses the pet cuttlefish her lab had while she was a postdoc at UCLA. He always turned polka dots when she gave him treats.

While this is one of many studies performed on cephalopods, it still manages to blow our mind about how amazing these creatures are. A documentary on Netflix came out last year which shows this very well. Titled “My Octopus Teacher”, the film shows a wildlife filmmaker and the bond he forms with an octopus over almost a year. It has stunning footage and a very engaging story and gives you a lot to think about.

Cephalopod intelligence and cognition have fascinated humans for a very long time (including me) and there is enough literature to go through to find out the details. They can be found by accessing the bibliography in references 1 and 2. It is a rabbit hole, but a tremendously rewarding experience, I promise. I hope I have done my part of infecting you with this fascination. Happy reading!

References:

  1. Gilmore, R., Crook, R. & Krans, J. L. (2016) Cephalopod Camouflage: Cells and Organs of the Skin. Nature Education 9(2):1
  2. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/facts/mimic-octopus
  3. Ureña Gómez-Moreno, J.M. The ‘Mimic’ or ‘Mimetic’ Octopus? A Cognitive-Semiotic Study of Mimicry and Deception in Thaumoctopus Mimicus. Biosemiotics 12, 441–467 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12304-019-09362-y
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amphioctopus_marginatus
  5. Schnell Alexandra K., Boeckle Markus, Rivera Micaela, Clayton Nicola S. and Hanlon Roger T. 2021Cuttlefish exert self-control in a delay of gratification taskProc. R. Soc. B.2882020316120203161.

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