The Intelligent Octopus

By Will Roseliep


Dec. 16, 2011

BOSTON — Sy Montgomery has never met an animal she didn't like. The New Hampshire author and naturalist has gone swimming with pink dolphins and piranhas, stood toe-to-toe with orangutans and raised a portly, 750-pound pig on her farm named Christopher Hogwood.
Now Montgomery is turning her attention to creatures with no bones and more legs: giant Pacific octopuses. Montgomery first befriended Athena, a giant Pacific octopus, when she visited the New England Aquarium in March. Their rapport was immediate.
"She came over from the other side of the tank to look at me. I could see her eye swivel in its socket and look in my face,” Montgomery said on “The Callie Crossley Show” on Dec. 15. Athena then reached out her arm to touch Montgomery’s.
“She was definitely having some kind of interaction. It was a someone, not a something," Montgomery said.

Read Montgomery’s article in Orion Magazine.

Roger Hanlon, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., has studied octopuses for 40 years. He says octopuses are startlingly intelligent.
"[Octopuses] are certainly smarter than the cat that we have at home," Hanlon said. "When you really watch these animals, they have so many decisions to make … it takes a big brain to organize all those quick decisions that are happening within milliseconds."
One quick decision that Hanlon famously caught on tape is the octopus's ability to immediately camouflage itself from predators. Studying this mechanism could yield some very useful applications.
"We work with engineers… trying to develop new classes of materials that will use pigments and reflectors based on the octopus skin to better manipulate light,” Hanlon said. The idea is to make your cell phone more efficient “so you don't have to be so reliant on battery power.”
As for how to learn more from these creatures, Sy Montgomery suggests making friends — and you'll know immediately if they want to be friends.
Says Montgomery, "An octopus is one big mood ring."

Hanlon reveals the octopus' ability to camouflage itself.

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