The Intelligent Octopus: Diving With Octopi

The Intelligent Octopus: Diving With Octopi
Joe Belanger

The Octopus might very well be among the smartest creatures underwater, and we’ve only just begun to understand them!

For the longest time, humans viewed Octopuses as little more than slightly advanced snails; a soft, strange animal with little or no abilities, aside from what was governed from the natural instincts that dictated it eat and reproduce.

For some who imagine diving with octopi, they are the stuff of nightmares, with the multiple arms and strong beaks as in the film adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (even though that was a giant squid). Notwithstanding fictional chimeras, anybody who has seen an octopus in the wild becomes quickly and deeply fascinated by them.

Octopuses belong to the species of cephalopod, literally “head-feet”, and are unique for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, they have no skeleton, neither internally (like humans) nor externally (like lobster and other shellfish). For this reason, they’re able to compress their bodies to the extreme, and some species are able to squeeze through any opening large enough to accommodate their eyes.

National Geographic once filmed a 600-pound octopus squeezing through a tube with a diameter the size of a quarter!

An octopus squeezing through a bottle.
An octopus squeezing through a bottle.
Photo by: Marcus Bay

In recent years, marine biologists and aquariums worldwide have reported impressive feats of skill and learning displayed by octopi, leading us to re-evaluate our understanding of these fantastic creatures.

And not least these past of a couple of weeks, with reports on octopuses taking photographs of divers, and an octopus trying to escape its tank at Seattle Aquarium.

We’ve only just begun to appreciate the intelligence of the octopus. It’s also extremely strong!

But these aren’t the only signs of octopus intelligence we’ve observed:


Back in 2009, workers at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium showed up for work and found more than 200 gallons of water spilled on to the floor of the building.

Turned out the culprit was one of their octopuses who had become curious about a water recycling valve. It managed to disassemble it and redirect a tube to pour out the water contents of the tank on to the floor.

Observational learning

One of the most famous experiments done with octopuses has had to do with observational learning, which is learning a skill simply seeing others performing it.

One such experiment had researchers give an octopus a screw-top jar containing a food item. The octopus tried but failed to open the jar.

That is until the researchers showed it through the aquarium glass how to open the screw-top, after which, the octopus copied their movements, successfully opened the jar and got to the food inside.

See how this octopus opens a jar.

The Ability to Learn and Adapt

Other studies have proven that octopuses are able to pass on knowledge from one to the other, essentially teaching each other skills, from hunting techniques to tool use (yes, tool use, more on that in a bit).

For species of octopuses who live in clans, this means that as one octopus learns something new, they are able to pass that knowledge on the rest of the clan, adding to their collective knowledge and skills.

Here is an amazing display of hunting skills by an octopus.

As Intelligent as Neanderthals?

Many types of octopuses use tools, from using rocks to crack open clams, to carrying around coconut shells to be used for protection from a predator.

Tool use is generally considered one of the strongest denominators of intelligence.

In particular, the use of coconut halves has caught researchers’ interest, as these octopuses seek out, pick up, and transport the coconut shells, with the seemingly sole purpose of using it for cover if attacked.

This indicates that they are able to imagine a future, dangerous situation and the coconut shell’s usefulness in that situation, which is a level of abstract thinking that is rare among animals.

An octopus hiding in a clam. It most probably used a rock to open it
An octopus hiding in a clam. It most probably used a rock to open it
Photo by: Marcus Bay

Cloaking the Octopus: Uncanny Camouflage

And of course, there’s the mimic octopus, most commonly found in the waters of northern Indonesia, that seems to teach itself to mimic other marine life.

It has been observed taking on the behavior of sea serpents, lionfish, flatfish, and more, probably to ward off potential predators.

A mimic octopus trying to be a starfish – Credit: Stubblefield
A mimic octopus trying to be a starfish – Credit: Stubblefield

The Octopus: Escape Artist

Only a few weeks ago, Seattle Aquarium got a lot of media coverage when one of their giant pacific octopus made several attempts at climbing its tank walls, and apparently tried to make an escape!

There have also been several reports from aquariums around the world about octopuses managing to escape their tanks, enter other tanks to eat the fish there, and returning to their tanks, leaving the staff none-the-wiser (save for the water left behind on the floor).

For this reason, aquariums are advised to place Astro-Turf on the tops of octopus tanks, as this material is hard for them to grasp with their arms.

Watch this incredible octopus escaping through a small hole. 

Ambush attacks!

The recent escape attempt in Seattle Aquarium wasn’t the first time their octopuses grabbed the headlines.

Years ago, the staff at the aquarium were confounded when several sharks when missing in one of their tanks, typically at a rate of one per night.

Here you will find The Truth About Sharks.

They put up video surveillance, only to learn that it was in fact the recently introduced giant pacific octopus that managed to camouflage itself, and ambush the unprepared sharks as they swam by, successfully killing them!

Here is the surveillance video of the attack.

Octopuses are unique creatures, and apparently, the more we study them, the more they amaze us. And we’re probably only just scratching the surface.


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