The cephalopod

The octopus was curled up in a corner of the aquarium, a gray mass of tentacles and soft flesh. It sat perfectly still, but faint waves of red traveled across its skin and betrayed its excitement. Slowly it began to move towards a jar in the center of the aquarium. Inside was a live crab. The octopus enveloped the jar with its body, and slid the tips of its tentacles through small holes in the lid, trying to reach the crab. But the holes were too small, and its tentacles were too large, and the crab remained out of reach. The octopus let go of the jar, jetted away, and again curled its gelatinous body up in a corner.

Dr. Hanai, the world’s second-most-renowned expert on cephalopod cognition, paused the video and said:

 But if you think that Sandy would give up on a meal so easily, think again! She’s just taking a moment to consider her options. A crab is worth the effort.

A murmur went through the audience of marine biologists. They had seen videos like this many times before, and they knew what was coming. But they were still eager to see the rest. The thrill of watching an octopus hunt never went old.

 Now let’s see how Sandy solves this problem, Dr. Hanai said, resuming the video with a smile on her soft face.

Sandy again approached the jar, again enveloped it with her body, and again slid the tips of her tentacles through the holes in the lid. But this time, rather than fruitlessly trying to reach for the crab, she calmly turned the lid, unscrewing it until it came off. She tossed the lid aside and moved into the jar, first with her tentacles, and then with most of her body. It was amazing to see how this large octopus fit almost entirely inside a small jar. Briefly there was a moving jumble of hard crab and soft octopus flesh. Then the movement stopped and Sandy left the jar. It was empty.

 Well, this is impressive, isn’t it? Dr. Hanai said. But impressive though it may be, let me ask the question that’s on all of your minds right now. Has Sandy solved this problem intelligently, by thinking it through? Or has she merely figured out how to unscrew the lid through trial and error? Let me see a show of hands! Who of you feels that Sandy has blindly, unintelligently, stumbled upon the correct way to open the jar?

There was some hesitation in the audience, but eventually about two-thirds raised their hands.

 Ok, I see, Dr. Hanai continued. Most of you do not think highly of Sandy’s intelligence! I understand that. Based on what you’ve seen so far, you should be skeptical of octopus intelligence. But let me show you another video. And then let’s see if this changes your mind.

The next video showed Dr. Hanai standing in front of the aquarium. In her hands she held another jar with a crab inside. Sandy was curled up in her usual corner of the aquarium. It was unclear if she was watching Dr. Hanai, or if her thoughts were elsewhere, or if indeed her thoughts were anywhere. The jar was slightly different from the one in the previous video. The lid was not screwed on, but held in place with a lock. Dr. Hanai showed a key to the camera. She then slowly inserted the key into the lock and turned it. The lid came off. She gave Sandy a conspirational wink that was clearly intended for the camera; the octopus seemed oblivious to all that went on. Then Dr. Hanai closed the jar, the crab still inside, and lowered it into the aquarium. Finally she tossed the key into the water.

Sandy remained motionless for a while, although more and more colored waves traveled across her skin. She then moved towards the jar, again enveloping it. First she tried to unscrew it, but with no success. Then she extended one tentacle towards the key and grabbed it. For a moment she appeared to explore the key, perhaps tasting it with her suckers. Then, without hesitation and in a series of smooth movements, she inserted the key into the lock, turned it, opened the lid, and ate the crab.

A wave of awe and astonishment went through the audience.

I sat at the back of the conference room, observing how Dr. Hanai expertly played the audience. Her performance represented everything that I loathed in science. It was unnecessarily sensational, tailored to make headlines. And worst of all, it was unscientific. A single video of a single octopus that seemed to do something clever was not scientific evidence. It was an interesting anecdote, nothing more. But with her effortless authority and casual beauty, Dr. Hanai always managed to shut down the critical-thinking skills of her audience, even if this audience consisted of scientists who in every other situation would be viciously skeptical. She had a way about her that made you believe everything she told you.

I left the conference room and walked towards a table with coffee and cookies. I poured myself a cup. I watched how Dr. Hanai left the conference room as well, followed by a cloud of fawning colleagues, mostly men. She chatted cheerfully with everyone. Then she noticed me, excused herself, and walked over.

 Hi Stan, she said. So what did you think?
 It was interesting. I’m sure the media are going to be all over it.
 Do I sense skepticism?
 Well, I’m just wondering how many hours of video you had to sift through to get this one fragment.
 Not many, actually. Sandy does it every single time. Well, if she’s hungry at least. And it’s not just Sandy either. Sally, Sandra, Cantor, Cain, they’re all able to do it. Some of the octopuses are a bit quicker than others, of course. But they all get it in the end.
 Hmm, still, I’d like to see this quote-unquote intelligent behavior replicated in a different lab. I hope you don’t mind my skepticism, but so far all I’ve seen is this one video. And frankly I find it a little too incredible. Tool use? Observational learning? Do you really believe that an octopus can do all that?
 Why don’t you try it in your own lab then? See how your own octopuses do.
 Perhaps I will.
 If you do, will you let me know how it goes?
 And maybe you can also let me know how things are, you know … with you?

The sound of a bell indicated that the next session was about to start. I started walking in the direction of Conference Room 3 for a session on cuttlefish mating behavior.

 You look tired.
 Well, I’ve just been very busy I guess. Doing, you know … science.

When I arrived back at the lab, I asked our technician to build a jar that was identical, or at least similar, to the one that Dr. Hanai had used. By way of example I sent her a link to the video that Dr. Hanai had—of course—posted on YouTube, and which had already received over three million views. I browsed through the comments below the video. One of the top comments was a suggestion for a follow-up experiment that involved Dr. Hanai and tentacle sex. The video had featured on New Scientist and several other major sites. Scientific American had even run a lengthy interview with Dr. Hanai, focusing on how she exemplified a new generation of brilliant female scientists who were about to upset the traditional order of male-dominated science. She was compared to Emmanuelle Charpentier. I wondered how Dr. Charpentier would feel about her work on CRISPR-Cas-9 gene editing being considered comparable as a scientific achievement to a YouTube video of a clever octopus. Someone had also added the video to the Wikipedia page about Cephalopod Intelligence. I edited the page, leaving the video, but adding a notification that this was currently the topic of a discussion.

Our lab had several specimens of Octopus wolfi, a small octopus with an arm span of a few centimeters. These were friendly little creatures that darted around their tank like tentacled goldfish. But they were not very smart. We also had a single specimen of Enteroctopus dofleini, a deep-sea octopus with an arm span of about ten meters. The E. dofleini was a passive creature that mostly sat in the corner of its tank. Only when fed did it briefly come to life, slowly reaching out with an enormous tentacle to grab a chunk of crab meat and bring it to its beak. The E. dofleini did not exhibit any of the playful behaviors of the smaller octopuses, presumably because its natural deep-sea habitat offered little opportunity for playful exploration. For the experiment, I decided to use a specimen of Octopus vulgaris, an octopus with an arm span of about one meter. Dr. Hanai had used O. vulgaris for her experiments as well.

I took one O. vulgaris specimen, OV-13, from its tank and transferred it to the lab aquarium for testing. I took the jar that our lab technician had built, put a live crab inside, and locked it with a key. I opened and closed the jar a few times, making sure that OV-13 could see everything. I felt silly, performing this act in front of an octopus that did not seem interested in the slightest. Then I lowered the jar into the aquarium and tossed the key into the water, just as Dr. Hanai had done in her video.

OV-13 approached the jar. It stuck the tips of its tentacles through the holes in the lid, trying to reach the crab. In defense, the crab grabbed one of the tentacles with a pincer. It looked painful. OV-13 pulled its tentacles back and jetted away, curling up in a corner. For the next hour, nothing happened. I drank a cup of coffee and worked on a position article in which I suggested that the elaborate skin patterning of Wunderpus photogenicus was best understood as the result of sexual selection, rather than as camouflage.

Then OV-13 came to life again. It approached the jar, and enveloped it, just as the octopus in Dr. Hanai’s video had done. It again slid its tentacles through the holes, but more carefully this time, suggesting that it had learned from the previous painful experience. Its muscles tensed as it exerted considerable force to open the jar. But its attempts were limited to brute force. OV-13 did not think to pick up the key and unlock the jar. After a few minutes of fruitless wrestling, OV-13 let go and jetted back to its corner.

My phone buzzed. I checked and saw an email notification. The sender was Katsumi Hanai.

hi s, how are you doing? i'm just wondering if you've tried to replicate our jar-locked-with-a-key (for lack of a better term!) experiment? if so, how is this going? and how are you doing otherwise? i was thinking that maybe you could visit our lab sometime? you could see how things have changed here. and give a talk about your latest work on camouflage behaviors of photogenicus, which is really interesting. my students would love to meet you. 愛 k.
Dear Kat, I have indeed been trying to replicate your experiment. So far I've had little success, although for now I've only collected pilot data with a single untrained vulgaris specimen. I'll keep trying and let you know how it goes. Thank you for the invitation to visit your lab. But I'm afraid that I'm very busy this period. Regards, Stan
hi s, i hope you don't mind my imposing some unwanted advice re: the experiment. but here are few things that are important to consider. the first is the training schedule. a naive octopus is unlikely to figure out how to open a jar with a key. that's why we first train them with a regular jar that they can open by force. then we train them with a jar that they need to unscrew (as you saw on the video). and finally we give them a jar that they need to unlock with a key. of course it's also important that the lid has holes in it so that the octopus can smell the crab. a final important thing to consider is the material of the jar and the key. octopuses taste with their suckers, so it's important that the materials do not taste 'dirty' to them. we tend to use plastic and glass which they seem fine with, and we tend to avoid metal, which they don't seem to like. i hope this is useful! perhaps if you don't manage to replicate the experiment despite all of the above, i could visit sometime and we could look at it together? k.
Dear Kat, thank you for the advice. I will try it and keep you posted. Regards, Stan

OV-11 approached the jar. Over the past weeks I had followed a strict training schedule, occasionally checking in with Kat to verify that my procedure matched hers. First I had let OV-11 figure out how to open a jar by force. This it had understood almost immediately. Then I had let it figure out how to open a jar by screwing off the lid. This had taken a bit longer, but it had eventually understood. Now it was time to open a jar by unlocking it with a key. I had just spent a few minutes elaborately demonstrating to OV-11 how to pick up the key, insert it into the lock, turn it, and open the lid. I had even made ‘hmm’ sounds to convey how delicious the crab looked. Then I had put the jar and the key into the aquarium. I was nervous.

OV-11 enveloped the jar with its body. It stuck its tentacles through the holes in the lid and appeared to try to unscrew it. When this did not work, it resorted to brute force. Its body tensed and rippled as it tried to tear apart the jar with its powerful muscles. But the jar and the lid were made of Plexiglas, and no octopus, except perhaps for E. dofleini, was strong enough to break it. Then OV-11 did something unusual. Instead of letting go of the jar and retreating back to a corner of the aquarium to sulk, it shoved the jar away with a powerful push of its tentacles. Bright red stripes traveled across its skin. Then it picked up the jar again and bashed it against the glass wall of the aquarium. This was the first time that I had witnessed something that resembled emotion in an octopus. I couldn’t wait to tell Kat. But the experiment was not successful. OV-11 may have felt frustration, but it had not figured out how to use the key to unlock the jar.

Hi Kat, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that OV-11 did something really interesting today. It got agitated when it didn't manage to open the jar (the one locked with a key) and then it essentially threw a tantrum! It shoved the jar away and bashed it against the aquarium glass. To me it looked like a clear display of frustration. Have you ever seen an octopus express itself like that? The bad news, though, is that OV-11 did not figure out how to use the key to open the lock. But I will keep trying. I feel that with OV-11 we're really close. Stan
hi s, that's so interesting! do you see the parallel between ov-11 and yourself? you're both frustrated because for now you haven't managed to make this work. but you're both very close and i'm sure that you will be successful soon! in the meanwhile, try to avoid shoving things around :-) and no, i've never seen an octopus behave like that. perhaps i should try to replicate it in my lab ;-) k.
Perhaps you should ;-) 愛 Stan

The experiment with OV-11 and the conversation with Kat had left me excited. I needed to clear my mind. I went into the lab that held the tank of ED-1, our specimen of E. dofleini. There was something relaxing about this lab. The lights were dim and the temperature was low to mimic a deep-sea habitat. ED-1 was barely visible, a motionless gray shadow at the far end of its tank, blending in with the environment almost perfectly. I thought about OV-11’s display of frustration, and wondered what ED-1 was feeling right now. Was it bored? Was it scared? Was it content?

I walked towards the enormous tank. The lid was sealed with a heavy lock to avoid ED-1 from escaping, even though unlike the other octopuses it had never made any attempt to do so. A small opening allowed the caretakers to feed ED-1, and to do basic maintenance work, without having to take the lid off. In an impulse I climbed a ladder that was attached to the side of the tank. Then I leaned over the opening in the lid, and put one arm in the water. It was cold, about 8°C.

 Hey Eddy, I said. What’s up with you? You’re always so quietly curled up in your corner there. What are you thinking about?

ED-1 remained motionless. Faint colors seemed to ripple across its skin, but it was difficult to be sure in the dim light. I leaned in even further, pushing my arm deeper into the cold water, as though this would somehow connect me to ED-1’s mysterious mind.

I felt a soft touch on my neck. For a brief moment I thought it was Kat. That she was standing behind me, caressing me. But then I realized that it was my key chain, which had slipped over my head and fallen into the tank. My keys slowly sank to the bottom.

 Fuck, I said. Eddy, would you hand me back my keys, please?

But ED-1 remained motionless in its corner.

I would have to find a hook somewhere to fish out my key chain. But that would come later. First I wanted to enjoy the tranquility of the lab for a little while longer. I climbed down, sat down in a comfortable chair, and looked at the tank.

Then ED-1 came to life. It slowly moved towards the front of the tank. It reached out with a tentacle and picked up my key chain, which looked tiny in its massive suckers. Then it reached with the tip of its tentacle through the opening in the lid of the tank. I held my breath. Was it really trying to give me back my key chain? I climbed back up the ladder and gently tried to take the key chain from its tentacle. But ED-1 did not let go. Instead, it curled its tentacle towards the lock on the lid. In slow, clumsy gestures, it tried each of my keys, one by one. I had about a dozen keys on my chain, one for every tank and cupboard in the various labs. ED-1 finally got to the key to its own tank, and turned it slowly. The lid came loose with a muted click. In apparent slow motion, with the patience of a deep-sea creature, ED-1 pushed the heavy lid open with two of its tentacles. For a while we looked at each other. Then a massive tentacle reached out to me. Its touch was soft and wet and slightly cold, like Katsumi’s body when she came out of the shower. Then its touch became firmer, as the tentacle wrapped around my arm. I heard a cracking sound as the bones of my upper arm broke into a thousand shards under the immense pressure of the octopus’s grip. Then it lifted me into the air like a doll, and carried me towards the cold water of the tank. Every lab was equipped with a camera to capture unexpected events. I wondered if it was recording right now. This kind of behavior had never been documented before, and if Katsumi would post it on YouTube, it would be guaranteed to go viral and boost her career. ED-1 pulled me down until I was submerged in the cold water. My third-to-last thought was that Katsumi would now finally become what she had always wanted to be: the world’s most renowned expert on cephalopod cognition. My second-to-last thought was that she had been that all along. Very slowly, ED-1 carried me towards its beak. My body burned like fire from the feeling of broken bones and ice-cold water. My last thought was of Katsumi’s warm body against mine.