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Curious Octopus Floods Aquarium

Christine Dell'Amore
National Geographic News
February 27, 2009
 
For one dexterous octopus, an attempt at a great escape turned into a great flood Thursday at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium in California.

The female California two-spotted octopus swam to the top of her tank, disassembled a valve with her powerful arm, and released at least 200 gallons (757 liters) of seawater into nearby exhibits and offices.

The foot-long (0.3-meter) creature remained in her tank and survived her ordeal. But the aquarium's brand-new floors weren't so lucky.

Such high jinks are typical of the invertebrates' still unexplained smarts, experts say.

"Octopuses have a wonderful combination of intelligence, tremendous manipulative ability, curiosity, and strength," said Jennifer Mather, a psychology professor at Canada's University of Lethbridge who has studied cognition in octopuses.

"So the result is that everybody who has ever kept octopuses has a string of stories about how octopuses can go where they want in aquariums."

Unbelievably Brainy?

Many octopuses show behavior that suggests curiosity, consciousness, and even a sense of humor, said Eugene Linden, author of the 2002 book The Octopus and the Orangutan: More True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity.

In one instance, an octopus given a slightly spoiled shrimp stuffed it down the drain while maintaining eye contact with its keeper, Linden said.

Wild octopuses have also been found to maintain "homes" and can remember where they've been in their neighborhood, pointing to a sort of self-awareness, Lethbridge's Mather said.

But it's hard to directly prove that octopuses are intelligent.

A smart animal that has the lowly clam for a cousin already "flies in the face of conventional wisdom of where you look for intelligence," Linden said.

Also, many scientists believe that intelligent beings are social, learn from others, and need a long lifespan to accrue brainpower.

Octopuses live only about a year and are solitary animals.

"It's enjoyable to speculate that nature doesn't always follow our rules [when] it decides to create an intelligent being," Linden said.

Fast Decisions

The University of Lethbridge's Mather suggests octopuses may have evolved braininess to cope with a highly complex environment—usually coral reefs—where they must make lightning-fast, life-or-death decisions.

For example, the animals are extremely flexible, able to fit their boneless bodies through tiny cracks. Some species can change color in a thirtieth of a second.

(Watch a video of an octopus squeezing through a one-inch hole.)

As for the crafty cephalopod in Santa Monica, aquarium staffers have rigged her tank with clamps and tape to thwart future getaways, the Los Angeles Times reported.

But, as Mather pointed out, there "isn't an awful lot [that will] stop them."
 

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