In the current issue of Orion Magazine there is an article about animal intelligence and the octopus that is worth a read. It is pretty much out in the field of common knowledge that these animals are remarkably intelligent. Most folks have heard one tale or another about an octopus sneaking out of their aquarium at night to pull off some mischief.
The article excavates a bit deeper into the super-perceptions of these denizens; how they can probably “taste emotions” through chemo-sensor skin. Their skin also has photo-receptors allowing the skin to “see,” and thus brilliantly adapt their coloration and even texture as a form of expression or method of camouflage – which they can do with flair and “personality.”
The Octopi are mollusks, sharing the phylum with snails and slugs – which seems a bit counter-intuitive. This is reconciled somewhat by their separate classification as “cephalopods” or “head foots” (along with the cuttlefish and squids) whereas the snails and slugs are “gastropods” or “stomach foots.”
What may account for their adaptive intelligence is that their nervous systems are a balance between a central nervous system (that vertebrates like us have) and a distributed nervous system (like insects have). Both systems have advantages. By centralizing our processing, our senses report back to our brain – which learns a repertoire of responses and can fine-tune and adapt over time in ways consistent to our learning.
Distributed nervous systems on the other hand have ganglia and neurons where they are needed, so the grasshopper’s brain doesn’t need to decide to jump, the legs just jump when some threshold is triggered. One advantage of this is in speed or impulse response; neural communications are not bogged down by pondering.
By having a combination of central and distributed neurological functions the octopus can learn, and adapt fast. So when you see these animals work on a problem it appears as if their arms are doing the thinking.
With super-sensing skin, a poisonous bite, rapidly adaptive coloration and texture, distinct individual personalities, and an uncommon ability to sort things out, what do these animals hear?
It turns out that they hear nothing – or at least they don’t let on to hearing anything. This is a bit uncanny given how useful sound perception would be to an animal with the octopus’ intelligence, adaptability, and sensory compliment. But they seem to be deaf as a stone.
The Ocean provides the octopus for us to get to know, but she also provides mysteries for us to ponder. What a gift.