Octopus 1Credit: Public Domain

To many, the graceful movements of the octopus are its predominant feature. To others, its fearsome appearance what strikes them first. For marine scientists, the venerable octopus has an even more amazing quality; it has proven itself to be a most remarkably intelligent creature.

This intelligence has been demonstrated in many ways most notably through observational learning, in playful activities and by the use of tools. The octopus is, almost certainly, the most intelligent invertebrate and among the brightest of the creatures of the sea.

Ancient Ideas

With this assertion made, it would be a serious mistake to compare the intelligence of an octopus to that of a human, a dog or even a sea mammal. Instead, one must consider that the different evolutionary stresses have produced an intelligence in the octopus that is uniquely suited to the its environment. Still, it shows striking similarities to us as it can navigate mazes, differentiate shapes and has shown documented evidence of memory.

These remarkable sea creatures were first noticed by the ancient Greek, Aristotle, but he concluded that, since their natural inquisitiveness made them easy prey for fisherman, they were profoundly stupid.

More current scientific investigations have revealed that the octopus has a massive brain for its body size and that the individual parts, the neurons, are grouped into higher order clusters much like humans.


Octopus 3Credit: BeckmannjanModern Thoughts

There are more than 300 species of Octopus and marine biologists are fascinated by all aspects os this cephalopods life cycle. Nevertheless, for all their physical biological diversity, it is their behavior that has most astounded the scientific community. Starting in the late 1950’s when researchers taught several species of octopi to differentiate between various shapes and various orientations of the same shape, the scientific debate about octopus intelligence has been heated and vigorous.


Current Evidence

The latest claims of significant octopus intelligence rely on several remarkable behavioral displays by the creatures.

For example, in certain instances, octopus have been seen to display behavior that can only be described as “play.” When provided with neutrally-buoyant, non-edible items, many octopus will catch the items, which have no functional or nutritional value, and propel the toys using their internal water jets to no seeming purpose. This behavior is then repeated and can last for as long as half an hour. Researchers and critics alike have no definitive explanation for this behavior and it is usually described as play.

In other situations, various species of octopus have become proficient at memorizing multiple mazes are extremely adept at pattern recognition. There are numbers of stories describing octopus in laboratory settings that have engineered “escapes” from their tanks only to be found in adjoining ones foraging for food.

Octopus 2Credit: Nick HobgoodLastly, the octopus is unique to the invertebrate world through its use of tools. Several species use coconuts shells as a form of protection while the creature moves across barren areas of the seafloor. Incidentally, it is the fact that the animal discards the shells after a temporary use that defines them as tools and indicates an amount of planning on the part of the octopus.

Regardless of their ranking on an IQ scale, the behavior and unpredictability of these delightful creatures will yield swimmers, divers and researchers with a long and rewarding series of experiences.

For a slightly different take on the amazing octopus, check out these cool octopus facts.