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'OCTOPUS!': Eight legs, one brain and plenty of smarts

Octopus Paul II is pictured at the Sea Life Centre in the western German city of Oberhausen, Nov. 2, 2010.
Octopus Paul II is pictured at the Sea Life Centre in the western German city of Oberhausen, Nov. 2, 2010.

Octopuses are so smart they get bored. Aquarium staff have learned to be wary of a bored octopus because they've been known to break the monotony by eating their own arms. That tends to scare the kids. 

Octopuses are so smart, one figured out how to open a child-proof, press-and-twist pill jar, and it took her less than an hour. 

Octopuses are so smart, they don't just look at you, they stare you down, especially if you're their keeper. Sometimes the gaze is curious, sometimes there's a glint of malice — it all depends: what did you just feed them? One bossy specimen chided her minder whenever the food wasn't up to snuff.

Though completely squishy, octopuses have earned "honorary vertebrate" status in the European Union, where they are legally protected against "pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm."

Katherine Harmon Courage's first book "OCTOPUS!" is crammed with funny, weird, memorable stories about human interactions with cephalopods that start out strange and only get stranger. Humans have been catching and eating octopuses for hundreds of years, she writes, but their biology and their bizarrely smart brains continue to inspire and befuddle researchers who study them. 

Octopus brains are a mystery: They run on a decentralized nervous system, two-thirds of which is distributed in the eight arms and legs, away from the central brain. So octopuses offer researchers an opportunity to study a unique kind of complex intelligence — one that's very different from the kind we understand and see in larger vertebrates and primates. 

Meanwhile, engineers are fascinated by the brains and body of the octopuses as well. Courage describes how some groups hope to replicate the cephalopods' decentralized, local-level intelligence to build networked robotic systems. Still others are studying its instant-camouflage skin and flexible body plan to build resilient, pliable soft rescue robots that can squeeze into hard-to-reach places. We chatted with Courage about "OCTOPUS!", which is due for release on Thursday. An edited version of the conversation follows: 

OCTOPUS! plunges deep into the bizarre world of these stunningly smart, solitary deep ocean dwellers.
"OCTOPUS!" plunges into the bizarre world of the stunningly smart, solitary, ocean dwellers.

Q. Was there a moment when you knew you had to write a book about octopuses? 

A: There was a study that came out three years ago, when I was a reporter at Scientific American. Researchers had observed octopuses collecting coconut shell halves to use, they said, as tools. The octopuses would collect the coconut shell halves, carry them around awkwardly, and when they were scared or wanted to hide, they would snap the halves together and crawl inside.

The researchers said this was an amazing example of foresight, planning, and all these things we generally ascribe to ourselves, to primates, maybe some other mammals, certainly not invertebrates. To see that in octopuses was incredible. And! They had a video they published with their study and it was incredible to watch them. Ever since that moment I’ve been totally fascinated and completely captivated.

Q: It seems like the more you learn about octopuses, they only get weirder. 

A: I still feel that way after writing the book — after researching them, traveling to see them, talking to researchers. I keep a blog at Scientific American called Octopus Chronicles, where I post about once a week new research that’s coming out, or new facts we learn about them. It’s incredible — it just never stops. They’re amazing. After writing this book they still surprise me every single day.

Q: Why is it so surprising to us that these creatures have this higher intelligence?

A: They look like aliens! If you saw one in a sci-fi movie, you’d be like, "Wow that’s a crazy-looking alien." But they live right here on our planet.

One of the researchers likened it to interacting with a dog: They look at you. They look at your eyes, they study you — not many animals look at you. Then you realize this animal has such a different genetic makeup from us … What’s going on in their heads?

Our last common ancestor was a sightless worm about 500 million years ago. How did we both arrive at this moment of intelligence? I don’t know if we’ll ever answer that.

Q: How have octopuses changed your understanding of what it means to be intelligent?

A: It made me realize how myopic our own view of intelligence is. I mean, octopus — two-thirds of their nervous system is in their arms, not in their central brain. What does that mean for their experience of the world, and how they’re figuring things out? Is it taking place independently in the arms, or among the arms? We’re still not really sure.

Q: What special abilities can we expect from our future octobot overlords?

A: If we can create a totally soft-bodied robot, it has almost infinite range of motion like the real octopus. It could squeeze through small holes, like the real octopus. Although it’s a little frightening to think of a self-aware squishy robot octopus. 

Q: What do we know about where octopuses came from?

A: That’s a really good question ... they’re really scarce in the fossil record because they don’t have any bones. [Researchers] find traces of them sometimes in these octopus-shaped stains on the rocks, incredibly rare and very hard to spot.

They all descended from something called a nautilus, which is also a cephalopod but something with a shell. At some point the octopus and squid branched off and became soft-bodied creatures.

It’s an interesting question because it intersects with intelligence. Did they have to become intelligent perhaps to defend themselves against the emerging fish and things with shells in the ocean?

Q: What is the first lesson that the octopus is going to teach us?

A: As amazing and deep and ongoing as the intelligence question is, that one might be more for the long term. In the near term there are so many researchers working on the skin and their camouflage abilities. If we could mimic that ability I think that would be a very exciting technological advance. That might come sooner, before we understand what octopus intelligence is. 

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and technology. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Google+