[Coral-List] Yes, the Octopus Is Smart as Heck. But, Why?

Dennis Hubbard dennis.hubbard at oberlin.edu
Thu Dec 13 19:50:26 UTC 2018

Like many others, I have been following this thread with interest and have
learned a lot about an organism I have always admired. I'll stay out of the
neural density-to-body mass discussion and add a story. When I was at West
Indies Lab back in the 70s and 80s, we required all UG students to design
and carry out a 5-week research project. One supervised by either Bill
Gladfelter or John Ogden (maybe a semester replacement -I can't remember)
tried to evaluate the ability of an octopus to be trained/encouraged to
change its feeding preferences. The seawater aquaria at WIL were provided
with water pumped ca 200 meters in PVC pipes that ran beneath the walkway
to the dock; it returned via the open space around the intake pipe -
significance later.

The protocol, as I remember it, involved placing several prey options into
the aquarium, one of which was the preferred diet of the captive subject -
an octopus that it took ca 2 weeks to capture. As might be predicted, the
octopus went for the preferred prey 100% of the time - at which point, it
received an electric shock. I guess the idea was to "train" the octopus to
eat alternatives. Each time the shock was applied, the octopus gave them a
"Is that the best you can do?" look and continued to eat its preferred
snack. I believe the amperage was increased incrementally with no effect.

After a number of days, the student forgot to put the cinder block on the
glass aquarium cover. The next morning, the cover had been slid over and
the octopus was nowhere to be found. Presumably (s)he had dropped down into
the aquaduct and slithered back to the bay, following the pipes.

So, what did I learn?

a) I don't feel so bad about being a geologist working without a clear but
random experimental design in a biologically dominated system?

b) The octopus is resistant/indiferent to shock. Is this "smart" - either
the octopus or the biologist.

c) Both during capture attempts and "experimental management", the octopus
appears to have been far more "clever" than the scientists. I'll leave it
to the listserve to decide how this equates to intelligence for either the
octopus or biology students.

Best for the holidays,


On Thu, Dec 13, 2018 at 10:55 AM Eugene Shinn via Coral-List <
coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov> wrote:

> Very thought provoking stuff. Possibly the octopus is a brain that
> happens to have eyes and arms. Gene
> --
> No Rocks, No Water, No Ecosystem (EAS)
> ------------------------------------ -----------------------------------
> E. A. Shinn, Courtesy Professor
> University of South Florida
> College of Marine Science Room 221A
> 140 Seventh Avenue South
> St. Petersburg, FL 33701
> <eugeneshinn at mail.usf.edu>
> Tel 727 553-1158
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Dennis Hubbard
Chair, Dept of Geology-Oberlin College Oberlin OH 44074
(440) 775-8346

* "When you get on the wrong train.... every stop is the wrong stop"*
 Benjamin Stein: "*Ludes, A Ballad of the Drug and the Dream*"

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