Inner Nature: The Otherworldly Octopus

By Vidya Rajan, Columnist, The Times

I was watching a male ruby-throated hummingbird at my feeder the other day. Hummingbirds fascinate me. Besides being charismatic and heart-stoppingly beautiful, they are feisty. I watched him drink his fill and then sit on a nearby branch to play dog-in-the-manger, chasing away other hummingbirds who dared to try to take what he didn’t want. Their speed, their maneuverability, their ability to hover in place – what’s not to love? What was most amazing was his ability to sense movement – mine, other birds’, a squirrel – off he would dash, losing himself amongst leaves to foil would-be predators. More than anything, it was the speed of his reaction that flabbergasted me. I would barely have thought to move, and off he went. So I decided to research and write about response time, and got side-tracked into reading about how various living organisms sense and respond to external stimuli. But I got bogged down with the first animal I encountered – the octopus.

It is the otherworldly intelligence of the octopus that is the most fascinating. Their exploits have been described in terms that would be suited to an alien intelligence; and what an intelligence! The embedded videos below show not only their immense ability to solve puzzles (Video 1), but their insanely flexible bodies – almost like liquid muscle. Their beak is the hardest part of their bodies, and anything their beak can fit through, they can fit through too (Video 2). But sensing opportunity is not their only trick.

The humble common octopus can camouflage itself by adapting to its background within minutes. One recently discovered “mimic” octopus can dupe predators by taking on not only the coloration but also the behavior, of some of the most venomous animals that live in its environment such as the poisonous flatfish, sea snake, or lionfish to give it enough time to escape (Video 3).

Three videos showing the versatile intelligence of the octopus. Video 1: Problem solving octopus frees itself from a screw jar. Video 2: Octopus escapes through a tiny slit. Video 3: Octopus mimics poisonous animals to escape predator.

All the videos are linked to

The Turing test –devised by Alan Turing, mathematician, cryptographer, breaker of the Enigma Code which helped the Allies win World War II – is a measure of determining whether a machine can demonstrate human intelligence in thoughts, words, or actions. By asking questions and getting back answers, a human interrogator can establish in principle if a human or a machine with artificial capabilities is on the other side of the conversation. I propose that this test be flipped over and extended to our animal interlocutors: In a conversation, would we be able to intelligently converse with them? More pertinently: would they think us intelligent?

To misquote Alan Turing: Sometimes animals no one thinks anything of are the ones who can do the things no one can imagine.


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