Why the intelligence of the octopus fascinates scientists - Ouest-France Evening Edition

Why the intelligence of the octopus fascinates scientists – Ouest-France Evening Edition

Written by Lisa Poncet, PhD student in Neuroscience, University of Caen-Normandy

Octopus or octopus, both terms refer to the same animal. The extraordinary intelligence of this strange sea creature does not cease to amaze scientists who study its cognitive abilities, such as neuroscientist Lisa Poinsett, from the University of Caen-Normandy.

It recently won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film The wisdom of the octopusStreaming on Netflix [voir vidéo ci-dessous]. The intelligence of these exotic marine animals fascinates more and more. How does such a special being perceive the world? Very lucky is he who can say it for sure…

Octopuses or octopuses (both terms are synonymous and refer to the same animal) are cephalopods, a class of marine animals that are part of mollusks. With eight arms covered in suction cups and a muscular body without bones or shells, it is endemic to our oceans.

Read also: The wisdom of the octopus, the story of the Academy Award-winning documentary

About 200 species of octopus on this planet

About 200 species are distributed in all marine waters of the world. While our last common ancestor returns with them to 500 million years, when we study them, they show disturbing similarities to us, through their staring eyes, or their brain surprisingly similar to ours, or their curiosity and urges of exploration that remind us of our thirst for knowledge.

Studying these similarities, which we call evolutionary convergence, allows us to better understand how the environment shapes and evolve similarly to organs and behaviors.

On this last point, the octopus’ behavior seems to indicate impressive intelligence. In deontology, the science of the study of behavior, we study this intelligence, which we rather call “perception.” Cognitive abilities can be defined as the processes by which information from the environment is perceived, processed, transformed, retained and then used to make decisions and take action.

From a behavioral point of view, the flexibility with which individuals adapt their behavior to new and new situations is a good measure of their cognitive abilities. Numerous studies on octopuses They show that they exhibit great flexibility in their behavior, both in their natural environment and in a laboratory aquarium.

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Talented in attack and defense

Let us first take the example of defense mechanisms in octopuses. Confronting many predators, octopuses are camouflaged, as they can mimic their environment by instantly and in a variety of ways changing the color and texture of their skin, thanks to the pigmented cells called chromosomes and the multiple muscles that cover their skin.

Octopuses can mimic their environment by changing the color and texture of their skin. (Photo: Corinne Bourbeillon / Ouest-France)

The poison of the small blue-ringed octopus, which lives in the waters of the Indo-Pacific, is especially strong. It is one of the only cephalopods capable of killing humans. (Photo: Corinne Bourbeillon / Ouest-France)

In the absence of a shell, octopuses are very vulnerable and will seek to hide, preferably in a shelter in the form of a cavity under a rock: octopuses arrange and maintain shelter by removing sand and adding stones and shells to better seal the entrance.

Others prefer to hide in silt, or cover themselves with shells, and some will carry their shelter between their arms, a behavior that counts as tool use. It is for Coconut Octopus, who was seen carrying half a coconut shell to hide under at the slightest danger.

Octopuses themselves are formidable predators, and their attack mechanisms are adapted to a wide variety of prey that they consume, that is, all kinds of shellfish and crustaceans, as well as fish and even other cephalopods. They can use their vision and camouflage to hunt, or use their arms to explore, touch and taste the environment and grab any food within range.

This tiny octopus photographed in the Philippines has found shelter in bamboo lying on the sea floor. (Photo: Corinne Bourbeillon / Ouest-France)

They can also maintain interactions between species To catch and cooperate with some fish, especially grouper, to find hidden prey. They learn to watch out for crabs that carry stinging anemones and attack them cautiously without stinging.

When eating shellfish and mollusks, octopuses can either force open the shell, possibly sliding a small pebble to prevent closure, or inject a paralyzing poison that allows the shell to open easily. The poison is inoculated In a very specific muscle after the shell has been drilled, the octopus must learn and remember where to drill each shell.

Closely watching creatures in the lab

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The cognitive abilities of octopuses have also been extensively studied in the laboratory. For example, in Our EthoS LabWe are currently working on the memory and planning capabilities of the common octopus.

They are complex animals to study, especially because of their great strength, because they can easily destroy search devices: beware of submerged cameras, they are able to open waterproof bags to bypass them! In addition, it is boneless, and it can easily escape through the smallest hole; Endlessly curious, they grab hands and net landing at the slightest maintenance of their aquarium.

A game in a common octopus from the EthoS lab. (Photo: Lisa Poncet/The Conversation)

Opening jars, while impressive and often used to demonstrate the intelligence of octopuses, are not the most exceptional ability. This task is easy for them thanks to their skill and ability to catch, but in the end the octopuses are very slow to perform this task: even if the octopus is highly trained, the octopus always takes more than a minute to open the pot and grab the crab. However, octopuses are still talented in their way of manipulating things, for example by adjusting their direction Slide them through a small hole in the wall.

They also excel in discriminatory learning: When they encounter two objects, they learn to attack an object in exchange for a reward, based on its characteristics, such as color, shape, texture, or taste. They can keep this learning for several months, and She is also able to generalize, a complex task that requires automatically expanding the learned base to include new objects based on their similarities (size, color, roughness) with those you encountered previously. For example, after octopuses have learned to recognize and attack a real ball, they can reproduce this learning on screen, thus To attack a virtual ball.

They show conditional discrimination, that is, they can modify their choice according to the context: for example, they can learn to attack an object only in the presence of bubbles in their environment and By refraining from attacking in their absence. They are capable of spatial learning, and they can Find an invisible refuge م He remembers his position in space. They can also Use visual cues To learn how to direct their arm into an opaque device.

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Finally, octopuses are able to learn By observing their colleagues. This is surprising, as they are animals that are described as mostly solitary (although octopus communities are occasionally noted). However, after observing a homozygous person choosing a particular object, the octopus is able to reproduce this behavior without additional learning. But despite being impressive in what they’ve learned in the lab, octopuses remain surprisingly erratic animals in their responses, especially in visual discrimination experiments, where they rarely exceed 80% success when other animals do their job nearly perfectly.

Squid is a better pupil than an octopus?

Thus, if we take the definition of intelligence, we note that octopuses validate all conditions: they show great flexibility in obtaining information (the use of multiple senses, social learning) in processing this information (discriminatory and conditional learning), in retention (long-term memory), and in its use (adapting behavior in the face of different predators and prey).

But don’t get me wrong: just because they’re the center of attention doesn’t mean they’re the smartest of our seas! In the yard of the cephalopod school, the octopus prefers to be the restless pupil. Squid prefers to be the first of its kind.

Squids also have amazing learning abilities. (Photo: Corinne Bourbeillon / Ouest-France)

These octopus cousins ​​have been surprisingly ignored by the general public, yet they are at the center of much research in behavioral science laboratories around the world: fewer of all occupations than octopuses, yet they have unparalleled learning abilities. To learn complex grammar in a very short time, and once they have it, they apply it perfectly.

Finally, cephalopods show us that it is not necessary to search for intelligent life forms in the stars, because there is still so much to discover in our seas!

The original version of this article was published in Conversation.

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