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  • Susan Elaine Jones

Make no bones about it

Today I saw a lovely, informative image from the Biologist's Apprentice on Facebook.

Know your cephalopods
Cephalopod skeleton display

Which made me realise that I would not normally have covered the amazing cephalopods, as I don't believe I have ever seen a display of their skeletons in a museum. (In fact, the image I have shown is, in reality, a picture of parrot food.)

Okay, so really not much going on in the bony world for invertebrates. But cephalopods are brilliant! They rightly deserve some good fan sites, such as this upworthy list, and these true facts about the octopus.

Yes, with no skeleton they can squeeze through ridiculously small holes. And they do seem to enjoy sneaking out of aquarium displays to have a wander about, eat the other exhibits, including sharks, or just return to the ocean.

And they are smart. But in a totally different way to us. To persuade them to stay in their aquarium's there are a number of enrichment programs. My favourite is feeding in Mr Potato Head, which the octopus really doesn't want to give up after feeding time.

Octopus, with mini-octopus brain shape

And being this smart is remarkable. Because evolution has right royally screwed them in terms of brain design. Apart from giving them a brain that looks like a mini-octopus, their throat goes right through the middle of it. Which means the whole brain has to flex when they swallow.

Octopus anatomy of brain wrapped around the esophaguss

Imagine how well we would cope with making decisions if eating meant tickling the insides of our brains? Certainly business meetings over lunch could lead to radically different decisions.

Unsurprisingly, cephalopod intelligence seems to be very different to ours. The brain structure is very different, brain size is a poor comparison as much of the sensory processing (which accounts for the scaling of brain size with body size) is distributed to the tentacles/arms. If my memory serves (as I can't find a simple summary for this), octopuses (octopii? octopodes? we've been through this already in a different blog) solve mazes better than any mammals. However, they also don't remember that they solved a particular maze, so whilst still being freakishly fast at solving it, they don't improve as well as us furry, skeleton based, mouth breathing land beasts.

There is a lot of discussion as to how intelligent they may be, and whether our ideas of measurement are even useful. They may the the most compelling case in Frans de Waal's question "Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?"

And before today, I was so dumb I didn't even know the difference between an arm and a tentacle.

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