NY Times science writer Carl Zimmer has an interesting article about the high intelligence of octopi, which is now fully recognized but not clearly understood. Good stuff: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/30/science/animal-intelligence-octopus-cephalopods.html. Back in the day (early 80s) when I was thinking about returned to grad school for my PhD, I took a course in biological psychology. One of our assignments was to do a paper on a researcher who studied other species, and I was assigned someone (can’t remember his name) who studied octopi. He was a pretty strict behaviorist (and even then I said, “Ugh,”) who tried to condition an octopus to go from one side of the aquarium to the other with very little success. His conclusion was, of course, that they were not very intelligent since they did not learn from his experimental setup. Nowadays we understand that the scientist wws not very intelligent because their experimental setup was ignorant of the species being studied. Remember Frans de Waal’s book Are We Smart Enough to Understand How Smart Other Animals Are?
More rigorous studies are now ecologically based, so that we know that octopi use shells to create shelter, squirt ink to confound predators who hunt visually and flee from those who hunt using olfaction, can open jars to obtain food, and so much more. Zimmer reports that scientists are not sure how their intelligence evolved because they are barely sociable, have a more decentralized nervous system (much of their ‘brain’ is distributed in their 8 legs, and they are relatively short lived; all 3 traits are correlated with higher intelligence. They do have a well-developed visual system and the ability to almost instantaneously change the coloration of their skin to camouflage with their surroundings.
Zimmer reminded me about Inky (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/14/world/asia/inky-octopus-new-zealand-aquarium.html) and then I followed links to two other examples. Inky was a reluctant resident of a New Zealand aquarium who disappeared from his tank. The keepers figured out that he (?) slipped out of his tank through an overflow pipe, traversed the floor to a drain, and squeezed (he was the size of a soccer ball but they are flexible and soft animals) down to escape into the bay below. Ah, the intelligent wanderlust of the eight-legged creature is an inspiration to us all. Another story comes from a London aquarium where an octopus repeatedly at night (they are nocturnal by nature) left his tank, went over to a fish tank to dine, and then returned to its home tank. Fine dining, no reservations needed.
The third example comes with an ethical question. Octopi are rarely sociable except when they mate; they are otherwise solitary. They share some neurotransmitters with mammals, however, and some researchers gave one a low dose of MDMA (ecstasy on the street) to stimulate the warm sensual feelings humans feel under its influence. This seemed to work as expected—the octopus became more social and interested in other octopi for awhile. Now I am trying to remember a movie about a mentally challenged man being given a drug which made him smarter for a brief period but then he returned to his former state with some consequent feelings about the whole affair. I assume that an animal rights’ committee approved this octopus research based in part upon the assumption that the octopus’s cognitive, mnemonic and emotional abilities were insufficient to suffer harm, but we don’t know that, do we? I read so much research where someone assumes that an animal does not feel or understand something when in fact we know that they do, just in their own way.
So did this experimental subject, i.e., the octopus, remember the drug induced episode with positive feelings, e.g., it was a good ‘trip’, guilt, e.g., can’t believe I hugged that other octopus for no good reason, or regret, e.g., how do I get those warm feelings back. I know this is putting an anthropomorphic frame on the experience but in actuality we have little way of knowing what the mental consequences were of drugging an animal whose intelligence we are only now beginning to understand. I am not sure that I would not have approved the experiment if I been on the committee. I am pretty sure the researchers had a rationale justifying this experiment in terms of helping humans but that is not reported in the news, nor are any ethical questions about research with other species. Some scientists are acting unethically with our own species—consider the quack in China who created GMO human twins. It’s a brave new world we have here and caution is advised. That is why one of my heroes is Inky, who found a way to escape to the wild and freedom (from us). Travel, really travel, on.