Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Octopus genome and intelligence

Giant Pacific Octopus
photo: Karen
The octopus genome has recently been sequenced and we are starting to learn new things about the intelligence of this "alien" animal.

Cephalopods fascinate me, partly because of the intelligence of the subclass Coloidea which includes octopuses, squid and cuttlefish. The Nautilus (Nautiloidea subclass) interests me mainly for their shell geometry; that they have retained their shell; and have evolved little in 500 million years.

I have two favorite stories about cephalopods: first, a few years ago, I was having dinner with some friends and ordered calamari. One of my friends commented that he would not eat anything that might be more intelligent than himself. The second story is much older and I have forgotten some of the details. I think it happened at the Vancouver aquarium, but I might be wrong. A keeper at an aquarium had a supply problem, one day, with fresh shrimp for the octopus and was forced to give it some shrimp of lower quality. Fixing its eye on its keeper, it stuffed the first shrimp into the aquarium's drain. It is briefly mentioned in this National Geographic article. Now, the octopus was certainly intelligent enough to know what the drain meant. Knowing the shrimp was not at its best would have been revealed as soon as it touched one of its suckers, and its rejection could have been automatic. However, fixing a stare on the keeper, while stuffing the shrimp down the drain reveals quite a remarkable level of abstract thought. The octopus did not react to bad shrimp as if it were an accident of the universe, but assigned blame for the situation and then communicated its displeasure to the only source it could blame. If I order a steak and it is overdone (I like mine blue rare), I will send it back, but I have known people who never had the nerve to do such a thing and would only complain to everyone else at the table. That octopus had attitude. Perhaps that is why my friend's comment about calamari clicked with me.

Compared to cephalpods, mammals are very recent arrivals to earth, and Man is so recent he has barely had time to take his coat off. So the genome of such a longtime inhabitant as the octopus whose distant cousin was the ammonite is an important milestone from an evolutionary perspective. As smart as they are, they do not live very long: the average is about a year, but the giant pacific octopus can make it to three. Breeding is the beginning of the end for them. But why would they need to live longer? They take care of their young only until they hatch, so there is no long term parenting that we see with some higher forms of mammal, ourselves included. The nautilus, while lower on the evolutionary scale, can live up to fifteen years. Evolution cares nothing for the individual, only the species. There are also important differences between the squid and the octopus: the former hunts and protects itself with a light show, while the octopus can change its colour and skin texture, morphing into its background.

In addition to the links above, you might like this article by Dr. Jennifer Mather, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Lethbridge, Alberta and Roland C. Anderson, The Seattle Aquarium, Washington: What behavior can we expect of octopuses? 

If you want to see a giant pacific octopus in the wild, there is no better place to dive in the world than Powell River, British Columbia. It is one of my favorite places, and a friendly little town (catch the Blackberry Festival). There is a good Mexican restaurant there that is actually run by a Mexican family, and that is unusual for Canada. It's also a great place for fishing and boating. My former assistant might still live there. Hi Natasha.

No comments:

Post a Comment