Amusing Monday: Octopuses, the aliens we can encounter on Earth

Octopuses are among the coolest creatures on Earth. Not only are they dexterous, with an amazing ability to grasp and manipulate objects, they also seem to know what they are doing.

In tests, octopuses have proven that they can solve puzzles, and they certainly have some sort of memory. They can tell people apart, even if dressed in the same uniform. This may be surprising, especially since octopuses don’t really have a brain like that of humans and other vertebrates (animals with a backbone).

Not having a backbone — or any bones for that matter — allows octopuses to escape from places where much smaller invertebrates would get stuck. Check out the first video on this page, a popular clip taken by Chance Miller, an Alaskan fishing and tour guide for Miller’s Landing near Seward.

Chance tells his skeptical passengers that the large octopus slithering around his deck would escape out a tiny drain hole, that is if and when the creature decides to go.

No way, says one man heard on the video. “That’s like trying to get my wife in her wedding dress; it ain’t gonna happen.” But, of course, it did.

As for intelligence, philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith says it is not so much a question of which animals among all the species are smarter in an formalistic sense. It’s about which animal best uses its intelligence to solve problems that relate to survival and success in other ways. The octopus is thus worthy of attention.

In his new and highly acclaimed book “Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness,” Godfrey-Smith talks about how octopuses and other cephalopods have a disbursed nervous system with neurons throughout their bodies. In some ways, a single tentacle may think for itself.

Mammals and birds have long been regarded as the smartest animals on Earth, but that may reveal a bias based on our similar patterns of thinking. After all, mammals and birds are closely related to us in an evolutionary sense, compared to all the invertebrates in the world.

Looking back in time, it is difficult to come up with a common ancestor to both humans and octopuses, Godfrey-Smith said. “It was probably an animal about the size of a leach or flatworm with neurons numbering perhaps in the thousands, but not more than that.” Check out the fascinating article in Quartz magazine by Olivia Goldhill.

This line of reasoning suggests that intelligence evolved on Earth in two very different ways. Studying the octopus could be the closest encounter that humans have with an alien creature, according to Godfrey-Smith. I may never think of an octopus quite the same way again.

Other interesting findings about octopuses are revealed in a 2009 Scientific American article, in which writer Brendan Borrell interviews Jennifer Mather, a comparative psychologist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.

The second video on this page shows an octopus solving a real-world problem of grabbing a meal by taking advantage of a human, while the third video is a 43-minute Planet Earth documentary released last summer about the intelligence and alien nature of the octopus.

I leave you at the end with a brief clip from the Cirque du Soleil performance of “Octopus’ Garden” by the Beatles.

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