Cephalopod intelligence

Cephalopod intelligence
An octopus in a zoo

Cephalopod intelligence has an important comparative aspect in the understanding of intelligence because it relies on a nervous system fundamentally different from that of vertebrates.[1] The cephalopod class of molluscs, particularly the Coleoidea subclass (cuttlefish, squid and octopuses), are considered the most intelligent invertebrates and an important example of advanced cognitive evolution in animals.

The scope of cephalopod intelligence is controversial, complicated by the challenges of studying these elusive and fundamentally different creatures. Classical conditioning of cephalopods has been reported, and one study (Fiorito and Scotto, 1992) even concluded that octopuses practise observational learning.[2] However, the latter idea is strongly disputed, and doubt has been shed on some other reported capabilities as well.[3] In any case, impressive spatial learning capacity, navigational abilities, and predatory techniques remain beyond question.


Examples of intelligence

Predation techniques

Unlike most other molluscs, all cephalopods are active predators (with the possible exception of the bigfin squid). Their requirement to locate and capture their prey has been a probable driving force behind the development of their intelligence, uniquely advanced in their phylum.

The humboldt squid hunts schools of fish, showing extraordinary cooperation and communication in its hunting techniques. This is the first observation of such behaviour in invertebrates.[4]

Crabs, the staple food source of most octopus species, present significant challenges with their powerful pincers and their potential to exhaust the cephalopod's respiration system from a prolonged pursuit. In the face of these challenges, octopuses will instead seek out lobster traps and steal the prize inside. They are also known to climb aboard fishing boats and hide in the containers that hold dead or dying crabs.[5]


Dexterity, an ability essential for tool use and manipulation, is also found in cephalopods. The highly sensitive suction cups and prehensile arms of octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish are as effective at holding and manipulating objects as the human hand. However, unlike vertebrates, the motor skills of octopuses do not seem to depend upon mapping their body within their brains, as the ability to organize complex movements is not thought to be linked to particular arms.[6]

One particularly clever octopus called Otto has been known to juggle his fellow tankmates around out of boredom, as well as throwing rocks and smashing the aquarium glass. On more than one occasion he even caused short circuits by crawling out of his tank and shooting a jet of water at the overhead lamp.[7]


Another example of cephalopod intelligence is the communication that takes place between the more social species of squid. Some cephalopods are capable of rapid changes in skin color and pattern through nervous control of chromatophores.[8] This ability almost certainly evolved primarily for camouflage, but squids use color, patterns, and flashing to communicate with one another in various courtship rituals. Caribbean Reef Squid can send one message via color patterns to a squid on their right, while they send another message to a squid on their left.[9][10]

Tool use

A small octopus (4-5 cm diameter) individual using a nut shell and clam shell as shelter.

The octopus is one of the prime examples of an invertebrate animal which has repeatedly been shown to exhibit flexibility in its use of tools. At least four specimens of the Veined Octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus) have been witnessed retrieving discarded coconut shells, manipulating them, transporting them some distance, and then reassembling them to use as a shelter. This discovery was documented in the journal Current Biology and has been filmed.[11][12] Most hermit crabs use discarded shells of other species for habitation and other crabs choose sea anemones to cultivate on their carapaces as camouflage; numerous insects use rocks, sand, leaves and so on as building materials, however none of this behavior compares to the complexity of the octopus's fortress behavior, which involves picking up and carrying a tool to use later on.

See also


  1. ^ "Cephalopod intelligence" in The Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy, and Spaceflight.
  2. ^ "What is this octopus thinking?" by Garry Hamilton
  3. ^ Is the octopus really the invertebrate intellect of the sea? by Doug Stewart. In: National Wildlife. Feb/Mar 1997, vol.35 no.2
  4. ^ Behold the Humboldt squid. Tim Zimmermann, Outside Magazine, July 2006.
  5. ^ Cousteau, Jacques Yves (1978). Octopus and Squid: The Soft Intelligence
  6. ^ Zullo, L; Sumbre, G; Agnisola, C; Flash, T; Hochner, B. (2009). "Nonsomatotopic organization of the higher motor centers in octopus". Curr Biol 19 (19): 1632–6. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.067. PMID 19765993. 
  7. ^ "Otto the Octopus wreaks havoc"
  8. ^ Cloney, R.A.; Florey, E. (1968). "Ultrastructure of cephalopod chromatophore organs". Z Zellforsch Mikrosk Anat 89 (2): 250–280. doi:10.1007/BF00347297. PMID 5700268. 
  9. ^ "''Sepioteuthis sepioidea'', Caribbean Reef squid". The Cephalopod Page. http://www.thecephalopodpage.org/Ssepioidea.php. Retrieved 2010-01-20. 
  10. ^ Byrne, R.A., U. Griebel, J.B. Wood & J.A. Mather 2003. Squids say it with skin: a graphic model for skin displays in Caribbean Reef Squid.PDF (3.86 MB) Berliner Geowissenschaftliche Abhandlungen 3: 29-35.
  11. ^ Morelle, Rebecca (2009-12-14). "Octopus snatches coconut and runs". BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8408233.stm. Retrieved 2010-01-20. 
  12. ^ "Coconut shelter: evidence of tool use by octopuses | EduTube Educational Videos". Edutube.org. 2009-12-14. http://www.edutube.org/video/coconut-shelter-evidence-tool-use-octopuses. Retrieved 2010-01-20. 

Further reading

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