Sy Montgomery does. That was a simpler time, eons before the octopus and Homo sapiens went their separate evolutionary ways, and certainly long before that highly intelligent cephalopod, which appeared some 300 million years ago, ended up boiled, stewed and fried. “Our lineage goes back a half-billion years ago when everyone was a tube,” says Montgomery, a naturalist and author of many books about animals. “That was when there were no eyes. Yet we have evolved almost identical eyes. I just love that.”
Montgomery’s enthusiasm and devotion to Earth’s creatures — and the similarities we share with them — has inspired her readers to get to know the eight-tentacled and big-brained wonders in The Soul of the Octopus, and taken us to the ends of the Earth and back to our own backyards in such award-winning books as Spell of the Tiger and Birdology.
A real-life Dr. Dolittle, Montgomery says she’s always related best to animals and — sometimes straining the patience of her bipedal family members — has long treated her home as a land-bound ark for orphaned animals. In scientifically precise but poetic prose, she writes that we share greater similarities than differences with the electric eel, the tarantula, the tree kangaroo and the snow leopard. Don’t forget, she says, that we hail from the same genetic pool, or more likely, gurgling swamp. By paying attention to the commonalities we have with our fellow animals — our singular capacity for what Montgomery argues is a broad range of emotions and zeal for life — humans can transcend the “we-shall-rule-the-Earth” anthropocentric focus, she says, and see that we are all in this together.
“We are on the cusp of either destroying this sweet, green Earth — or revolutionizing the way we understand the rest of animate creation,” Montgomery said. “It’s an important time to be writing about the connections we share with our fellow creatures. It’s a great time to be alive.”
Leslie Crawford: Do you understand animals more than people?
Sy Montgomery: As a child, I grew up on an Army base and I did not have a single human friend. It allowed me the freedom to get to know other species. I vividly remember my 20s like it was yesterday. As a young person, I was often worried about whether or not I was reading other people correctly. And yet these are organisms that use the same English language. It’s terrific to be in my 60s and know I can read animals. I have always read animals better than people.
What did you find surprising about humans as a child?
I was shocked to learn that people use their language to lie. Even little kids lie. Of course, animals will lie, too. A sea snake will say, I’m three or four sea snakes. Chimpanzees lie all the time. But the degree to which humans use language to lie shocked me. I’ve always dealt with animals in a very straightforward way. I wasn’t ever trying to conceal things from them. Humans often want incorrect information about you and project incorrect things on you.
So much has changed about our understanding of animals since you started writing about them. When did you first realize that animals are sentient beings?
I think most of us realize as children that animals are sentient beings. But then, somehow, for so many people, this truth gets overwritten — by schools teaching old theories, by agribusiness that wants us to treat animals like products, by the pharmaceutical and medical industries who want to test products on animals as if they were little more than petri dishes. But thankfully, scientific and evolutionary evidence for animal sentience has grown too obvious to ignore.
What have you learned about animals and consciousness?
You don’t want to project onto animals your wishes and desires. You have to respect your fellow animals. I don’t want to roll in vomit, but a hyena would enjoy that. I don’t want to kill everything I eat with my face, but that’s what I’d do if I’m a great white shark. If I were eating a carcass, I would not be as happy about it as a scavenger. We have different lives but what we share is astonishingly deep, evolutionarily speaking.
When did you know you were an animal person?
Animals have always been my best friends and the source of my deepest joy. Before I was 2, I toddled into the hippo pen at the Frankfurt Zoo, seeking their company, and totally unafraid. When I learned to speak, one of my first announcements to my parents was that I was really a horse. The pediatrician reassured my mother I would outgrow this phase. He was right, because next I announced I was really a dog.
My father loved animals. Growing up, my mother had a dog named Flip who she adored. But I seem to have had an even greater attachment to animals than they did. My friend, the author Brenda Peterson, says that I must have been adopted at the local animal shelter.
How many animals do you currently live with?
Right now, the only animal who lives with us is a border collie named Thurber. I travel a lot: Thailand, Ecuador, Germany, Spain. I can’t force my husband to have a house filled with animals. I had chickens but predators got almost all of them. Weasels got into the coop. They are so smart. Even though we buried wire beneath the floor, weasels need just a tiny opening to get through. You can never weasel-proof an old barn.
It sounds like you have some respect for weasels even though they killed your chickens?
They were there first. I learned my chickens were killed on Christmas morning when I brought a bowl of popcorn to them and saw this white creature with black eyes staring at me. You’d think I’d be angry. But the beauty and ferocity of this creature filled me with awe. At the same time that I mourned my beloved chickens, I admired the weasel.
You originally studied psychology. How do you go about thinking about what animals are thinking? Or is it a mistake for people to imagine animals are thinking in a way that we think?
I triple majored in college, and psychology was one of them. But thinking about animals wasn’t really part of the coursework. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that nonhuman animals share our motivations and much of our thought processes. We want the same things: food, safety, interesting work and, in the case of social animals, love. But we can’t always apply human tastes to animals — otherwise fish would seek to escape from the water and hyenas wouldn’t roll in vomit.
When did you stop eating meat and dairy and why do you think some people make the decision and others don’t?
I read Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer, in my 20s. Even though I loved meat, I haven’t eaten it since. I can’t wait to try the Impossible Burger!
In writing Sprig, I learned so much about pigs, including how smart they are. What do you love most about pigs?
They are so sensitive and emotional. And they’re wise. They know what matters in life: warm sun, the touch of loving hands and great food.
Similarly, when I wrote Gwen, I found out how remarkable hens are with their own superpowers, including keen eyesight and a strong community that includes watching out for each other.
I agree with you. I love these aspects of their lives. I love how similar they are to us in so many ways, but I also love the otherness of these animals.
Speaking of “otherness,” in your book Soul of an Octopus, you came to know Athena, an octopus, as a friend. But can a person really know an octopus?
Until the day I met Athena in 2011, pretty much all of the creatures I got to know personally were vertebrates. We are so like fellow mammals, with whom we share 90 percent of our genetic material.
I didn’t know if I would be able to bring what I understand about other animals to an invertebrate, but I was delighted to see it was true of the octopus. It was clear the octopus was just as curious about me as I was about her.
There are some animals who aren’t interested in you. But when you have an octopus look you in the face and investigate you with her suckers with such an intensity, well, what that octopus taught me [about consciousness] blew me away. When Athena grabbed me, I correctly understood that she wasn’t being aggressive, just curious.
How do you convince people to consider an octopus as something other than something to eat?
I tell them about my octopus friends, Octavia and Kali and Karma — specific individuals to whom they could relate.
I have realized that preaching to people about seeing animals as worthy of the same compassion and dignity as is owed humans doesn’t work. But if preaching isn’t effective, what do you think works to change hearts and minds — and stomachs?
Teach by example. It’s the most powerful tool we have. Your love for pigs, told through your stories of Sprig and Gwen, is contagious because of your example. You show how much fun it is to let these animals enrich your life and make others want to be part of it. That’s much more appealing than a lecture.
Are there one or two calls to action you would ask of people who want to improve the world for animals?
I would suggest that individuals find the action that best suits them. For me, when I was young, working 14 hours a day and making relatively little money, I had no extra time for volunteer work, and my tithes to animal causes amounted to far too little. But I could change my diet, so I did. For another person, an overnight change to vegetarianism or veganism might be too tough, but perhaps they could volunteer at a shelter.
I personally hate politics, though I vote and donate. But other people might throw themselves joyously into working toward electing candidates that support conservation and animal welfare legislation. Happily, we can all work with our individual strengths to make the change animals deserve.
What about everything we learn daily about climate change and the growing risk of mass extinctions?
Sometimes you don’t want to read the headlines. It’s so depressing. During the civil rights movement, I was too young to have anything to do with that. But now we can choose to be part of what is definitely a movement, one that recognizes that nonhuman animals think and know and feel the way we do. We know this based on cognitive and behavioral science. That change has happened within my lifetime, which is fantastic.
The fact that we live during a challenging time gives us an opportunity to be courageous. I’m thrilled to be able to apply my courage to such a worthy endeavor and with such worthy partners.
The death of two whales caused by entanglement in octopus traps in recent weeks has caused an uproar among marine conservationists and local residents. A petition doing the rounds, to suspend exploratory fishing for octopus ,has gathered thousands of signatures.
On Friday, Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy announced the decision to temporarily suspend exploratory fishing for octopus with immediate effect.
Creecy’s decision comes after talks with operators in the False Bay Area.
“Our decision is taken following widespread public concern regarding recent whale entanglements in the False Bay area which has resulted in the untimely and cruel death of these magnificent creatures.”
The statement Creecy released explains how the traps came into existence.
“In 2014, the Department established an octopus exploratory fishery that is operating in Saldanha, False Bay and Mossel Bay. This programme aims to gain scientific knowledge regarding octopus harvesting, with a view to enhancing job creation and economic development in coastal areas. Meaningful data has been collected between 2014 and 2018, and will continue until 2021 in order to ensure a solid statistical time series of catch and effort data.
“Once enough data has been collected, it will be analysed and subjected to proper scientific scrutiny and review, after which a recommendation will be made regarding the viability of establishing a new commercial fishery. Such a recommendation will also consider mitigating measures in the operations of octopus fishery,” read the statement.
Throughout the process, the Department has been leading with permit holders to ensure whales do not get caught in the nets.
After today’s meeting, operators will start the process of removing the gear from False Bay, focusing on the areas where the whales were harmed first.
A carcass of a young humpback whale, about eight metres long, that was killed during octopus fishing is retrieved on June 27, 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. According to the City of Cape Town officials, the humpback whale was entangled in an octopus fishery line and had drowned. This is reportedly the third entanglement and second fatality of whales as a result of the octopus fishery in the last two weeks. (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach) Less
The City of Cape Town has called on Environment, Forestries and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy to issue a moratorium on octopus trapping in False Bay, following the death of two whales in two weeks as a result of the controversial industry.
ARTICLE UPDATE 4.50PM, 28 JUNE, 2018: The Minister on Friday acounnced in a statement it had decided to temporarily suspend exploratory fishing for octopus with immediate effect. The decision was taken following consultation with operators in the False Bay Area.
Late in the afternoon of Wednesday, 26 June, the carcass of a juvenile humpback whale was spotted off of Sunny Cove in False Bay. The animal was left floating overnight until city officials from the Environmental Management Department’s Coastal Management Branch, with assistance from Cape Town Octopus – the company at the centre of the controversy – were able to retrieve it early on Friday morning.
It was the second whale to have died in just two weeks, both allegedly having drowned after becoming entangled in fishing line attached to octopus traps.
The death of a Bryde’s whale on 11 June sparked outrage on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, with citizens calling for the industry to be shut down after media reports revealed that the octopus trapping permit is classified as experimental rather than commercial. The official number of whales that have died as a direct result of becoming entangled in octopus traps is not known – some reports indicate that nine whales have died over the last few years, while others say the humpback whale is only the third to drown.
But Garry Nel, General Manager of Cape Town Octopus, told Daily Maverick on Thursday that the latest whale death was not as a direct result of his current gear.
“It was a line that was lost seven years ago in another detanglement operation from a separate vessel all together that was one of the very first research boats in that area using gear with no modifications. We assisted the NSRI in that detanglement, and they cut the line and we never found that gear again.”
Nel has operated in False Bay catching octopus for over 15 years, although the Department of Environmental Affairs told Daily Maverick that multiple stakeholders were offered the same permit option.
Nel said the line used seven years ago floated, while the lines his team currently use are weighted, sinking lines. Nel told Daily Maverick that one of the new sinking lines caught onto the old piece of line, but the whale was entangled in the older line.
In a press release issued by the City of Cape Town Marian Nieuwoudt, Mayoral Committee Member for Spatial Planning and Environment said that “the whales swim into the long ropes, and that they get a fright when this happens. They then roll over and get entangled, and eventually drown because the fishing gear is too heavy for them to reach the surface.”
As a result of the latest whale death, the City has called for Minister Barbara Creecy to issue a moratorium on the experimental licence, requesting that all gear be removed from False Bay until the “fishing gear and equipment are redesigned, tested, and proven not to pose a threat to our marine life”.
Creecy, as the new Minister of Environment, Forestries and Fisheries (DEFF), takes over control of what was previously the Department of Agriculture, Forestries and Fisheries (DAFF). It was DAFF that issued the experimental octopus fishing permit in 2003 and it is DAFF, now DEFF, that Nel provides with data on all things octopus related.
At a Fisheries stakeholder forum on 19 June Creecy addressed the contentious issue of trapping octopus in False Bay.
“What I would like to do is get some independent opinion on this so that I can understand whether we are doing everything that we can to prevent a situation where we’re endangering mammals,” Creecy said.
But environmental activists are demanding the Department provide answers as to why the process has taken so long. Swati Thiyagarajan, head of Conservation and Campaign of the Cape Town-based Seachange Project, told Daily Maverick that one of the biggest issues with the Department is a lack of transparency.
“It’s a Marine Protected Area, why did the start this project in the first place? What, and who, are they supposed to be protecting?”
Thiyagarajan was among a small group of bystanders and activists who watched Thursday’s humpback being transported from the slipway onto the back of the City’s Solid Waste Department’s trucks (see video clip above). As the juvenile whale was moved into shallow waters those present noted the presence of another whale just outside of the slipway investigating the situation.
Darryl Colembrander, City of Cape Town Head of Coastal Management and Programmes, told Daily Maverick that the missing pieces of flesh on the whale were in fact shark bites rather than wounds caused by the entanglement itself.
In a response to Daily Maverick’s request for information, Albie Modise, Chief Director of Communications for the Department of Environmental Affairs said:
“The only consistent (and therefore practically usable data) that has been received from this fishery to date has been that collected by Mr Nel’s fishing operations.
“As fisheries data relies on analyses of trends over time, the data from the first few years are not very informative, but these become more informative as one accumulates more data over time.”
The Department did not respond to a deadline requesting more information on why data was not made public. DM
We request an immediate moratorium on all octopus trapping in the False Bay area until such time as stakeholders and concerned citizens are consulted and can agree on a safe operating standard/procedure for the use of traps used in the octopus trapping fishing industry and that the Department uses this period of Moratorium to gather much needed information on stock levels and the impact of octopus trap fishing on the environment.
For many years now permits for trapping of octopus in the False Bay area have been issued to a local fishing company and during this period there have been numerous entanglements and deaths and it is now time to put an end to the suffering and deaths.
The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries & Forestry (which has recently been incorporated into Environmental Affairs) were negligent in issuing a permit to the permit holder, relying solely upon data submitted by the permit holder to determine whether the stock was a viable source to fish. As per their 2016 Status report they listed the stock status as “unknown” – nearly 20 years since the start of octopus trapping – after such a long period surely they should know what the stock levels are and what impact this fishing is having on the stock and what effect it is having on other species such as otters and sharks who also feed on octopus.
These traps, with long ropes tied to buoys that float on the surface, are a danger not only to whales and dolphins but they also pose a huge risk to boats and ships. False Bay is the home to the South African Navy and in the past they traps allegedly had sonar reflectors and lights on them – this is no longer the case. There is no visible warning on any of the traps in the bay and poses a big risk to the military and recreational boat user.
The traps in the Simon’s Bay area are in areas used by the Naval ships and submarines. Should a submarine catch one of these ropes in its propellers it could mean catastrophic loss of life of those on board. Small boats and yachts are often out in rough weather or at night and they pose a serious threat to these vessels as well.
The two most recent whale entanglements on the 8th and the 10th of June 2019 caused the unnecessary and avoidable death of a Bryde’s Whale.
The whale is from the ‘inshore’ stock of Bryde’s whales. This is a small resident population that does not migrate. We do not have a good estimate of the whole population nor a thorough understanding of population structure (but there is some). Available information suggests the population is very small. A survey in 1983 estimated 583 +- 184 in the population (Best et al. 1984). More recent work based on photos of individuals suggests this is about right (not published yet – G Penry data). Using the best available knowledge at the time – the 2016 South Africa Red List assessment confirms there are almost certainly fewer than 1000 and ‘up-listed’ the population to VULNERABLE. Recent genetic work by Gwen Penry at NMU strongly suggests that this is potentially a subspecies in its own right (Penry et al. 2018).
Information to hand is that 12 of these animals have been caught (of which 8 died) in trap fisheries along the SA coast over the years, although it is not clear if they were all octopus or if some were crayfish traps.
The Bryde’s whale population is small, localised, officially vulnerable and clearly prone to being caught in trap fisheries. We strongly encourage further research into the topic of impacts on the population and a clearer definition of the status of the fishery.
We implore the Honourable Minister to place an immediate moratorium on all trapping in the False Bay area until such time as stakeholders and concerned citizens are consulted in order to come up safe operating procedures that will include compulsory 24 hour monitoring at sea of these traps as well as sufficient visible signalling on the bouys to avoid any further endangerment of both marine and human life. This Moratorium will also allow the Department time in which it can assess the current stock levels and update much needed information that they need in order to be able to apply their minds when considering the issuing of permits.
For years the octopus-trapping ropes set up in False Bay have led to a number of marine animals, whales in particular, getting entangled and killed. The recent death of a trapped Bryde’s whale just days after a humpback calf was trapped in the same ropes has pushed the public over the edge.
Members of the community took to social media to share their outrage over the incident and have joined together to see that something is done about these needless and preventable deaths.
An official petition has been created to raise awareness around the harm caused by octopus traps as well as develop safer conditions for marine life.
“We request an immediate moratorium [ban] on all octopus trapping in the False Bay area until such time as stakeholders and concerned citizens are consulted and can agree on a safe operating standard/procedure for the use of traps used in the octopus trapping fishing industry and that the Department uses this period of Moratorium to gather much-needed information on stock levels and the impact of octopus trap fishing on the environment,” the petition reads.
For years permits for octopus trapping have been casually issued, and these traps have lead to numerous entanglements and deaths of marine animals.
The community feels the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has approved a number of permits without proper consideration or updated data.
Octopus traps consist of long ropes tied to buoys that float just above the water surface, and are not only a danger to whales but also to dolphins, boats and ships.
False Bay is home to the South African Navy and octopus traps also often endanger those on board boats in the bay, as the traps no longer include sonar reflectors or lights as they once did.
If a submarine accidentally catches one of the ropes in its propellers, a dire situation could develop.
Recently two whales were caught in the same octopus trap near Millers Point on June 8 and 10, leading to the death of one of them.
The creators of the petition, dubbed “Save our whales: Stop Octopus Trapping in False Bay, Cape Town”, are imploring the Honourable Minister to place an immediate ban on all trapping in the False Bay Area until a safer operating procedure can be put in place. A safer procedure would include compulsory 24-hour monitoring at sea of octopus traps and sufficient visible signalling on the traps’ buoys to avoid endangering any more marine or human life.
The community hopes that the department will also take time to assess the current stock levels and update any information they may need to make educated decision when issuing permits.
Octopuses are known to be intelligent, advanced creatures, able to create their own shelter, change color in an instant and even adapt well to climate change.
In a new study, a group of 33 international scientists suggest these unique traits may have an unearthly origin. They investigated the theory that octopuses may have evolved from life forms that came to earth on ancient comets.
This isn’t a new concept. Scientists have been grappling with the origins of life on our planet for centuries. And this study adds an intriguing look into the theory of panspermia, that suggests the evolution of life on Earth has, and continues to be, influenced by the arrival of organisms from space.
The study has faced some criticism, but the scientists have also supported their claims with well-established research. Let’s take a closer look at their findings.
THE THEORY OF PANSPERMIA
In the 1980s, astronomer Fred Hoyle teamed up with astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe to propose that life didn’t originate on earth. In fact, life was seeded on our planet by comets carrying space-hardy bacteria, viruses and perhaps even fertilized eggs and plant seeds. This concept is scientifically known as “panspermia”.
The earliest microbial life found on Earth was discovered in Canadian rocks and is estimated to be about 4.1-4.23 billion years old. This was during the Hadean epoch, when the earth was still forming its core and crust, as well as its atmosphere and oceans. Our planet had frequent and violent collisions with asteroids and comets during that period, and the surface was still extremely hot and unstable.
The study’s researchers propose that it was impossible for life to have formed on Earth during this time. The first microbes found in Canada were most likely delivered by comets and meteorites that impacted with our planet, and these microbes went on to become the basis of terrestrial life on Earth.
WHAT CAN ACTUALLY SURVIVE ON A COMET?
Comet-hopping life forms may sound far-fetched, but research is starting to show this may be a distinct reality. Evidence has found that comets would have contained vast amounts of water in their interiors when they were first formed billions of years ago at the dawn of our solar system. These protected, watery environments would have provided ideal conditions for early bacteria and viruses to grow and multiply.
Be healthy. Be loving.
Get daily tips for leading a healthy and compassionate life delivered to your inbox.
The discovery of a wide variety of ancient organic particles in comets also supports this theory. Organic particles are important precursors for the creation of molecules that are the foundation of life, such as sugars, amino acids and DNA bases.
Once comets had cooled down and after millions of years in space, evidence suggests the primitive bacteria and viruses living on them became embedded in rock, carbonaceous material or ice. This effectively protected them from the intense radiation and sub-zero temperatures encountered in space.
Although not proven, it is also possible that more complex life forms, such as fertilized eggs and plant seeds, could also have survived in similar conditions.
Masters of disguise – Mediterranean Octopus
WHAT OCTOPUSES CAN TELL US ABOUT EVOLUTION
Octopuses are actually related to slugs and snails. They belong to a group of mollusks known as cephalopods that developed about 500 million years ago during what’s known as the Cambrian Explosion. This was a time when life in the earth’s oceans went through a dramatic stage of diversification and evolution, and most of the ancestors of modern life were born.
The new study, titled “Cause of the Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic?”, investigated panspermia and how it may relate to the Cambrian Explosion, and the rise of life forms like octopuses. They made a few important conclusions.
1. Virus-bearing comets fueled the Cambrian Explosion.
Viruses are the smallest living organism on earth, and they reproduce by attaching themselves to a host cell in another living organism and inserting their own genetic material into the cell. This changes the genetic structure of the host cells, which can cause disease in the host.
This also means that a viral infection can alter the host’s genetic code, and potentially change its course of evolution. Retroviruses are a specific type of virus that first appeared and multiplied just before the Cambrian Explosion.
And the researchers believe these retroviruses came from cometary bombardment the Earth was experiencing around the same time. As the comets broke up and left debris trails in the Earth’s atmosphere, dormant retroviruses were released and spread across our planet’s surface.
This wide-spread introduction of new genetic material in the form of viruses affected the development of life in our planet’s oceans, and potentially all land-dwelling life forms that came later.
2. Octopuses appeared too abruptly to have evolved on Earth.
The introduction of interstellar viruses may have increased the genetic diversity of life on our planet, but octopuses have some unique genetic traits that simply don’t make sense from an evolutionary stand point.
Genetically, octopuses are significantly different than most other life forms on Earth. Their large brains, sophisticated nervous systems, flexible bodies and ability to instantly switch color and shape are still very unique compared to other modern life forms.
And these striking traits appeared very suddenly on the evolutionary scene about 270 million years ago. The research group concluded that this sudden “great leap forward” would be impossible in such a short time frame.
“Thus the possibility that cryopreserved squid and/or octopus eggs, arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago should not be discounted,” the researchers say.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO LIFE ON EARTH TODAY?
We may never know whether or not octopus eggs actually arrived on Earth from outer space, but the theory of panspermia does hold the potential for a radical shift in our world view.
The research group concluded their study by discussing the need to change from our outdated view of life originating exclusively on Earth to one incorporating “cosmic biology,” which recognizes the scientific evidence that life on our planet may have been, and continues to be, influenced by organisms that arrive from outer space.
They also point out the vast number of Earth-like planets and other life-friendly planetary bodies that exist in our galaxy, and the potential for billions of exchanges of material between them through meteorites, cometary bolides and even space dust.
“One is thus forced in our view to conclude that the entire galaxy (and perhaps our local group of galaxies) constitutes a single connected biosphere,” the researchers write.
What do you think? Is Earth part of an intergalactic web of life? Or are we alone in the universe? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
In 2008 the staff at Sea Star Aquarium in Coburg, Germany, had a mystery on their hands. Two mornings in a row, they had arrived at work to find the aquarium eerily silent: the entire electrical system had shorted out. Each time they would reset the system only to find the same eerie silence greeting them the next morning. So on the third night a couple of staff members kept vigil, taking turns to sleep on the floor.
Sure enough the perpetrator was apprehended: Otto, a six-month-old octopus.
He had crawled out of his tank and, using his siphon like a fire hose, aimed it at the overhead light. Apparently it annoyed him or maybe he was just bored. As director Elfriede Kummer told The Telegraph, “Otto is constantly craving for attention and always comes up with new stunts… Once we saw him juggling hermit crabs in his tank”.
Anecdotes of the mischievous intelligence of octopuses abound. Individuals have been reported to solve mazes, screw open child-proof medicine bottles and recognise individual people. Keepers are inclined to give them names because of their personalities.
Problem solving, tool use, planning, personality: these are hallmarks of the complex, flexible intelligence that we associate with back-boned animals, mostly mammals.
But a squishy octopus?
Some researchers who study the octopus and its smart cousins, the cuttlefish and squid, talk about a ‘second genesis of intelligence’ – a truly alien one that has little in common with the mammalian design.
While the octopus has a large central brain in its head, it also has a unique network of smaller ‘brains’ within each of its arms. It’s just what these creatures need to coordinate the mind-boggling complexity of eight prehensile arms and hundreds of sensitive suckers, which provide the octopus with the equivalent of opposable thumbs (roboticists have been taking note). Not to mention their ability to camouflage instantly on any of the diverse backgrounds they encounter on coral reefs or kelp forests. Using pixelated colours, texture and arm contortions, these body artists instantly melt into the seascape, only to reappear in a dazzling display to attract a mate or threaten a rival.
“They do things like clever animals even though they’re closely related to oysters,” says neuroscientist Clifton Ragsdale, at the University of Chicago. “What I want to know is how large brains can be organised not following the vertebrate plan.”
So how did evolution come up with this second genesis of intelligence or what film-maker Jacques Cousteau referred to as ‘soft intelligence’ back in the 1970s?
Cousteau inspired many a researcher to try and find answers. But it has been hard to advance beyond Technicolor screenshots and jaw-dropping tales – what zoologist Michael Kuba at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) refers to as “YouTube science”.
For decades the number of octopus researchers could be counted on one hand. They were poorly funded, and their valiant efforts were held in check by notoriously uncooperative subjects and inadequate tools. “You really had to be a fanatic,” says Kuba.
In the last few years, with more and more researchers lured to these enigmatic creatures, the field appears to have achieved critical mass. And these newcomers are the beneficiaries of some powerful new tools. In particular, since 2015 they’ve had the animals’ DNA blueprint, the genome, to pore over. It has offered some compelling clues.
It turns out the octopus has a profusion of brain-forming genes previously seen only in back-boned animals. But its secret weapon may not be genes as we know them.
A complex brain needs a way to store complex information. Startlingly, the octopus may have achieved this complexity by playing fast and free with its genetic code.
To build a living organism, the decoding of the DNA blueprint normally proceeds with extreme fidelity. Indeed it’s known as ‘the central dogma’. A tiny section of the vast blueprint is copied, rather like photocopying a single page from a tome. That copy, called messenger RNA (mRNA), then instructs the production of a particular protein. The process is as precise as a three-hat chef following her prized recipe for apple pie down to the letter.
But in a spectacular example of dogma-breaking, the octopus chef takes her red pen and modifies copies of the recipe on the fly. Sometimes the result is the traditional golden crusted variety; other times it’s the deconstructed version – apple mush with crumbs on the side.
This recipe tweaking is known as ‘RNA editing’. In humans only a handful of brain protein recipes are edited. In the octopus, the majority get this treatment.
“It introduces a level of sophistication and complexity we never thought of. Perhaps it’s related to their memory,” says Eli Eisenberg, a computational biologist at the University of Tel Aviv. Though he quickly adds, “I must stress this is complete speculation”.
Jennifer Mather, who studies squid and octopus behaviour at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, suggests it might go some way to explaining their distinct personalities.
There’s no doubt that linking octopus intelligence to RNA editing is the realm of fringe science. The good news is it’s a testable hypothesis.
Researchers are now gearing up with state-of-the-art tools such as the gene-editing technology CRISPR, new types of brain recorders and rigorous behavioural tests to see whether RNA editing is indeed the key to octopus intelligence.
How did the octopus get so smart?
Some 400 million years ago, cephalopods – creatures named for the fact that their heads are joined to their feet – ruled the oceans. They feasted on shrimp and starfish, grew to enormous sizes like the six-metre long Nautiloid, Cameroceras, and used their spiral-shaped shells for protection and flotation.
Then the age of fishes dawned, dethroning cephalopods as the top predators. Most of the spiral-shelled species became extinct; modern nautilus was one of the few exceptions.
But one group shed or internalised their shells. Thus unencumbered, they were free to explore new ways to compete with the smarter, fleeter fish. They gave rise to the octopus, squid and cuttlefish – a group known as the coleoids.
Their innovations were dazzling. They split their molluscan foot, creating eight highly dexterous arms, each with hundreds of suckers as agile as opposable thumbs. To illustrate this dexterity, Mather relates the story of a colleague who found his octopus pulling out its stitches after surgery.
But those limber bodies were a tasty treat to fish predators, so the octopus evolved ‘thinking skin’ that could melt into the background in a fifth of a second. These quick-change artists not only use a palette of skin pigments to paint with, they also have a repertoire of smooth to spiky skin textures, as well as body and arm contortions to complete their performance – perhaps an imitation of a patch of algae, as they stealthily perambulate on two of their eight arms.
“It’s not orchestrated by simple reflexes,” says Roger Hanlon, who researches camouflage behaviour at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “It’s a context-specific, fast computation of decisions carried out in multiple levels of the brain.” And it depends critically on a pair of camera eyes with keen capabilities.
It takes serious computing power to control eight arms, hundreds of suckers, ‘thinking skin’ and camera eyes. Hence the oversized brain of the octopus. With its 500 million neurons, that’s two and a half times that of a rat. But their brain anatomy is very different.
A mammalian brain is a centralised processor that sends and receives signals via the spinal cord. But for the octopus, only 10% of its brain is centralised in a highly folded, 30-lobed donut-shaped structure arranged around its oesophagus (really). Two optic lobes account for another 30%, and 60% lies in the arms. “It’s a weird way to construct a complex brain,” says Hanlon. “Everything about this animal is goofy and weird.”
Take the arms: they’re considered to have their own ‘mini-brain’ not just because they are so packed with neurons but because they also have independent processing power. For instance, an octopus escaping a predator can detach an arm that will happily continue crawling around for up to 10 minutes.
Indeed, until an experiment by Kuba and colleagues in 2011, some suspected the arms’ movements were independentof their central brain. They aren’t. Rather it appears that the brain gives a high-level command that a staff of eight arms execute autonomously.
“The arm has some fascinating reflexes, but it doesn’t learn,” says Kuba, who studied these reflexes between 2009 and 2013 as part of a European Union project to design bio-inspired robots.
And then there’s their ‘thinking’ skin. Again the brain, primarily the optic lobes, controls the processing power here. The evidence comes from a 1988 study by Hanlon and John Messenger from the University of Sheffield. They showed that blinded newly hatched cuttlefish could no longer match their surroundings.
They were still able to change colour and body patterns but in a seemingly random fashion. Anatomical evidence also shows that nerves in the lower brain connect directly to muscles surrounding the pigment sacs or chromatophores.
Like an artist spreading pigment on a pallet, activating the muscles pulls the sacs apart spreading the chromatophore pigments into thin discs of colour. But the octopus is not composing a picture. Hanlon’s experiments with cuttlefish show they are deploying one of three pre-existing patterns – uniform, mottled or disruptive – to achieve camouflage on diverse backgrounds.
As far as detailed brain circuitry goes, researchers have made little progress since the 1970s when legendary British neuroscientist J.Z Young worked out the gross anatomy of the distributed coleoid brain. Escaping Britain’s dismal winter for the Stazione Zoologica in balmy Naples, Young’s research was part of an American Air Force funded project to search for the theoretical memory circuit, the ‘engram’.
“They were ahead of their time,” says Hanlon, who experienced a stint with Young in Naples. Nevertheless they were limited by the paucity of brain-recording techniques that were suited to the octopus.
It’s a problem that has continued to hold back the understanding of how their brain circuits work. “Is it the same as the way mammals process information? We don’t know,” says Ragsdale.
It’s not for want of trying, as Kuba will tell you. In the 1990s, he joined the lab of neuroscientist Binyamin Hochner at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Hochner was a graduate of Eric Kandel’s lab, the Nobel laureate who pioneered studies on how the sea slug Aplysia learns.
All the action takes place in the gaps between individual neurons, the ‘synapse’. The synapse may look like an empty gap under the microscope but it’s a crowded place. It’s packed with over 1,000 proteins that assemble into a pinpoint-size microprocessor. If each neuron is like a wire, it’s up to this microprocessor to decide whether the signal crosses over from one wire to the next. When the sea slug learns a lesson, for instance withdrawing its gill in response to a tail shock, that’s because new computations at the synapse rerouted the connections.
Kuba, however, found an octopus to be far less obliging than a sea slug. Whatever electrical probe he stuck into its brain was rapidly removed thanks to all those opposable thumbs. Ragsdale also had his share of frustration. “We have a technical problem with sharp electrodes. For example, if you put an electrode into the optic lobe, the neurons will fire for about 10 to 20 minutes and then become silent.”
Kuba, who is now based at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, hopes that a new kind of miniature brain logger that sits on the surface of the brain, hopefully out of reach of prying suckers, will kick-start the era of octopus brain-circuit mapping.
“There’s a lot of technical challenges, but they are surmountable,” agrees Ragsdale.
The irony is that the first insights into how the vertebrate brain sends signals came from a squid. In 1934 Young identified a giant squid nerve cell that controlled the massive contractions of its mantle, the bulbous muscular sac behind the eyes that both houses the organs and squeezes water through the siphon with such great effect!
Like mammalian neurons, the most distinctive feature of the squid cell was its wire-like axon, but with a diameter of around one millimetre, it was 1,000 times fatter than those of mammals. The colossal size allowed researchers to insert a metal electrode and measure the changing electrical voltage as a nerve impulse travelled along the axon.
All this foundational knowledge shed light on vertebrate brains, but the detailed circuitry of the squid brain was largely left in the dark.
Breaking the central dogma
It was another frustrated neuroscientist who opened the latest front into the understanding of soft intelligence.
In the early 1990s, Josh Rosenthal, based at William Gilly’s lab at Stanford, was making use of the time-honoured giant squid motor axon. But with a new purpose. Rather than measure its electrical properties, Rosenthal wanted to isolate one of its key components: the ‘off’ switch. It is a protein called the potassium channel.
The squid neuron made this protein according to a recipe carried by its DNA blueprint, which is cached in the cell’s nucleus. To access the recipe, the cell makes a mRNA transcript, rather like transcribing a single recipe from a recipe book. Rosenthal wanted to isolate these transcripts and read the code sequence for the protein channels.
But he had a problem. Every time he read the sequence for the potassium channel, it was slightly different. Was it just an error? If so, it was highly consistent. The changes were not random. They always occurred at one or more precise positions in the code. And, invariably, the letter A was always changed to the letter G.
For instance, imagine a recipe for apple pie was supposed to read: Place the crust around the pie. Instead it was being edited to: Place the crust ground the pie. Such a change might instruct the modern-day deconstructed apple pie rather than the traditional crusted version.
Unbeknownst to Rosenthal, Peter Seeburg at the University of Heidelberg was puzzling over a similar glitch in a recipe for a human brain protein, the glutamate receptor. When Seeburg’s paper was published in 1991, Rosenthal recalls, “everyone got excited”.
Clearly editing brain recipes was important for humans and squid. But why?
In the human (or mouse), editing the glutamate receptor changed how much calcium could flow into brain cells. In mice, failure to edit was lethal, as it allowed toxic levels of calcium to stream in. There’s also evidence that failure to edit the same receptor in humans is associated with the neurodegenerative disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
An enzyme called ADAR2 carried out these crucial edits to the RNA recipe. Just why evolution hasn’t gone ahead and ‘fixed’ the DNA source code of the glutamate receptor remains a mystery.
As for the squid potassium channel, Rosenthal had a hunch. After an electrical signal has passed through a neuron, it needs a ‘reset’ for the next signal. The potassium channel plays a crucial part. In cold temperatures, the reset might take longer, making the animal a bit sluggish. Could RNA editing be a way of fine tuning the system in response to temperature? Rosenthal tested his idea by spending several years collecting octopuses that live in either tropical, temperate or polar climates. It was indeed the polar octopuses that were the most avid editors of their potassium channels.
Potassium channels turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. Rosenthal teamed up with computation geek Eli Eisenberg at Tel Aviv University to trawl through mRNA databases and find out just how much recipe tweaking was going on with squid genes. In humans, tweaking is rare – restricted to a handful of brain gene recipes. In the squid, the majority of brain recipes received this treatment. Many of them were related to proteins found at the synapses, the microprocessors for memory and learning.
Could this extemporising with brain protein recipes be important for soft intelligence? It’s a tantalising idea. “Coleoids show it. Nautilus – the stupid cousin – does not, it’s like any other mollusc,” says Eisenberg.
“Coleoids are editing the same proteins that we know are involved in learning and memory. By editing them or not, it’s not a stretch to hypothesise that they are adding flexibility and complexity to the system,” says Rosenthal.
Clues from the blueprint
Over in Chicago, Cliff Ragsdale, another frustrated octopus neuroscientist, was also turning his interest to octopus DNA.
In 2015, working with Daniel Rokhsar and Oleg Simakov of OIST, the Ragsdale laboratory managed to read the genome of the California two-spot octopus.
It turns out that the octopus has more genes that we do: 33,000 compared to our 21,000. But gene number per se doesn’t bear much relation to brain power: water fleas also have about 31,000. In fact most of the genes in the octopus catalogue were not all that different to those of its close relative – the limpet, a type of sea snail. But there were two gene families that stood out like a sore thumb. One was a family of genes called protocadherins. This family of ‘adhesion’ proteins are known to build brain circuits. Like labels on the tips of growing neurons, they allow the correct types of neurons to wire to each other — so neuron 370 connects up to neuron 471 at the right time and the right place. Limpets and oysters have between 17-25 types of protocadherins. Vertebrates have 70 types of protocadherins plus over 100 different types of related cadherins. These circuit builders have long been thought to be the key to vertebrate braininess.
So it was stunning to find that the octopus has a superfamily of 168 protocadherins. Ragsdale says the squid genome, also now being sequenced, shows it is similarly equipped with hundreds of circuit-building genes.
The other stand-out in the octopus genome was a family of genes called ‘zinc fingers’. They get their name because the encoded proteins have a chain structure that is cinched by zinc atoms into a series of fingers. These fingers poke into the coils of DNA to regulate the transcription of genes.
Limpets have about 413 of these zinc fingers. Humans have 764. Octopuses have 1,790! Perhaps this profusion of octopus zinc fingers is involved in regulating the network of brain genes?
So far, the octopus has revealed three big clues as to how it generates brain complexity: it has multiplied its set of circuit-building protocadherin genes and its network-regulating zinc fingers. It has also unleashed RNA editing to generate more complexity on the fly.There may also be a fourth mechanism at work.
Genes are supposed to stay put. But ‘jumping genes’, which are closely related to viruses, have a tendency to up anchor and insert themselves into different sections of the DNA code. That can scramble or otherwise change its meaning. Imagine if the words ‘jumping gene’ just started appearing randomly in this text. Fred Gage’s group at the Salk Institute in San Diego has found that during the development of the nervous system in mice and humans, jumping genes start jumping.
What this means is that each individual brain cell ends up with slightly different versions of its DNA code. Gage speculates that this may be a way to generate diversity in the way neurons wire up. Perhaps it goes some way to explaining why twins, born with the same DNA, nevertheless end up with different behaviours.
“If you believe that theory,” says Ragsdale, “you’ll be struck by the fact that we also found a high number of jumping genes active in the brain tissues of the octopus.” Testing the theory
Unravelling the details of how octopus and squid are using and abusing the genetic code is generating iconoclastic hypotheses about how they generate their complex brain circuitry.
And researchers are not blind to the problems of dogma-breaking. For one thing, playing fast and free with the genetic code creates an astronomical number of possible proteins, most of which would be toxic to the animal, says Eisenberg. “It’s very troubling; one hypothesis is that this may explain their short lifespan of one to three years.”
Troubling or not, Rosenthal and colleagues at Woods Hole are moving full speed ahead to test the role of RNA editing in the coleoids by bringing together researchers with different expertise. “There’s a lot of moving pieces,” says Rosenthal.
For starters, their Woods Hole team is cultivating four species of small squid and cuttlefish that reach sexual maturity in two to three months. The goal is to manipulate the squid’s genes using the genetic engineering tool, CRISPR. To see if they can get CRISPR working, they will try to ‘knock-out’ the pigment genes. If they’re successful they should see the result on the squid bodies. “It’s a beautiful in-built test,” says Rosenthal.
If that works, they will try the big experiment. Does impairing the ability to edit proteins at the synapse (by knocking out the ADAR2 gene responsible for RNA editing) tamper with learning and memory?
Meanwhile, collaborator Alex Schnell, a behavioural biologist based at the University of Cambridge in the UK, is developing rigorous tests for complex learning and memory in cuttlefish. In particular, she is testing their capacity for “episodic memory”, a detailed weaving together of memories once thought to be a strictly human attribute.
For instance, it’s thanks to your episodic memory that you recall exactly where you were and what you were doing on 11 September 2001. Since the late 1990s, we know that animals like great apes, crows and jays also have that capacity. Maybe cuttlefish do too. Schnell’s initial results show that cuttlefish can learn and memorise complex information about their favourite food, such as when and where it is likely to be found.
With other teams around the world pursuing similar strategies, it seems likely that after decades of awe and wonder, the mystery of soft intelligence may soon yield to hard science.
[Back on October 4th I posted about the New rule banning octopus hunting in Seattle because of the public outcry when a diver killed a 6 foot “specimen” and left it clearly displayed in the back of his truck (like a wolf in Jackson Hole). Then on October 14th, the New York Times ran an absurdly-titled article praising the killer, while disparaging the people who called for an end to octopus hunting in Puget Sound (who were ultimately successful).
I’m not going to include the entire article (hell, I’m not even going to read it all), since it goes on for 4 or 5 pages, but here’s the first page so you can see how feebly the media sucks up to animal killers these days]:
In the months leading up to the hunt, Dylan Mayer trained twice a week in his parents’ swimming pool, asking friends to attack him, splay their arms and grab him, drag him to the surface and shove him below it, pull off his mask, snatch his regulator, time his recovery. By last Halloween, he was ready, and as the light began to fade that afternoon, the broad-shouldered 19-year-old jumped into a red Ford pickup truck with his buddy and drove some 40 minutes from Maple Valley, Wash., to West Seattle. They arrived at Alki Beach around 4 p.m., put on their wet suits and ambled into Cove 2. Then they slipped into Elliott Bay, the Space Needle punctuating the city line in the distance like an inverted exclamation point.
Dylan Mayer holding the giant Pacific octopus that he caught in Puget Sound.
Under the dark water, the teenagers looked around with the help of a diving light. At 45 feet, they passed a sunken ship, the Honey Bear, and at 85 feet, beneath the buoy line, they saw further evidence of the former marina — steel beams, pilings and sunken watercraft. Marine life thrived in this haven of junk, and for this reason, Cove 2 was a popular dive site. According to the permit he had just purchased at Walmart, Mayer was allowed to catch this sea life and cook it, which is exactly what he set out to do. He wasn’t much of a chef, but he had experience foraging for his dinner. Mayer had attended a high school known for its Future Farmers of America program; he also knew how to slaughter cows and castrate bulls. Now he was going to community college, where he was asked to draw something from nature. He figured that he might as well eat it too. And as he scanned the bay, he could already imagine searing the marine morsels on high heat and popping them, rare and unctuous, into his mouth. He soon spotted his prey. “That’s a big [expletive] octopus,” he scribbled on his underwater slate.
The giant Pacific octopus was curled inside a rock piling, both its color and texture altered by camouflage. Mayer judged it to be his size, about six feet, and wondered if he could take it on alone. He lunged at the octopus, grabbing one of its eight arms. It slipped slimily between his fingers, its suckers feeling and tasting his hand. He reached for it again, and again it retreated. Able to squeeze its body through a space as small as a lemon, the octopus was unlikely to succumb to his grip. He poked it with his finger and watched it turn brighter shades of red, until finally, it sprang forward and revealed itself to be a nine-foot wheel charging through the water.
The octopus grabbed Mayer where it could, encircling his thigh, spiraling his torso, its some 1,600 suckers — varying in size from a peppercorn to a pepper mill — latching onto his wet suit and face. It pulled Mayer’s regulator out of his mouth. His adrenaline rising, he punched the creature, and began a wrestling match that would last 25 minutes.
Eventually, he managed to pull the animal to the surface, where a number of divers couldn’t help noticing a teenager punching an 80-pound octopus. As they approached, Mayer freaked out. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, sucker marks ringing his face. “Maybe we shouldn’t have done this.” But it was too late. He dragged his kill ashore, where a few bystanders, in disbelief, took his picture and threatened to report him. Lugging the octopus to the red truck, Mayer cited his permit. But the divers kept taking pictures. That night, as Mayer butchered the octopus for dinner, they posted the photos online.
In a city finely attuned to both the ethics of food sourcing and poster-worthy animal causes (the spotted owl, the killer whale and marbled murrelet among them), Mayer’s exploits became an instant cause célèbre. On Nov. 1 and 2, Seattle’s competing news stations reported the octopus hunt. The next day, The Seattle Times ran the story on the front page. On Web forums, Seattleites tracked down the teenager’s name and address through the clues in the photos: the truck’s license plate, the high school named on Mayer’s sweatshirt and the inspection sticker affixed to his tank. “I hope this sick [expletive] gets tangled in a gill net next time he dives and thus removes a potential budding sociopath before it graduates from invertebrates to mammals,” read one typical comment, which received 52 “thumbs-ups.” Around the same time, Scott Lundy, one of the men who had confronted Mayer in Cove 2, issued a “Save the G.P.O.” petition to ban octopus harvesting from the beach and examine the practice statewide. By the next day, he had collected 1,105 signatures.
SEATTLE – A new rule making it illegal to hunt and kill giant Pacific octopuses at more than a dozen Puget Sound dive sites takes effect this weekend.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) says the new rule provides more protection for the species and comes nearly a year after a scuba diver legally captured and killed one off Alki Point in West Seattle. That incident sparked a huge public outcry – prompting the WDFW to consider new harvesting regulations.
This past summer, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to ban all recreational harvesting of giant Pacific octopuses at the following seven sites:
Deception Pass north of Oak Harbor
Seacrest Park Coves 1, 2 and 3 near Alki Point in West Seattle
Alki Beach Junk Yard in West Seattle
Three Tree Point in Burien
Redondo Beach in Des Moines
Les Davis Marine Park adjacent to the Les Davis Fishing Pier in Tacoma