Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Jennifer Mather and octopus personality

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

Dr. Jennifer Mather looks for intelligence in the oceans. She’s not studying the dolphin or the whale, but the octopus. They’re fascinating to her because octopuses are really different from us, related to clams and mollusks. If we can understand their intelligence, we can understand just how different intelligence can be and can manifest.

Cephalopods like the octopus took the mollusk body and lost the shell. As a result, they had to develop tricks: techniques, camouflage, and big brains. While Mather is fascinated by ways that octopuses can act as chameleons, her focus is on understanding octopus intelligence.

A definition of intelligence she offers involves reasoning, understanding and the capacity for learning. But she thinks the right way to understand these questions is to look at personality, play, and problem-solving.

Most people won’t consider animals to have personalities – but they’ll see it in their dogs, for instance. People who work at the Seattle aquarium began naming their octopuses – “Leisure suit Larry”, who enjoyed lots of human contact, or “Emily Dickinson”, who hid under rocks and wasn’t an appropriate aquarium exhibit.

To study personality, she added a threat to the environment – a test-tube brush that the octopuses didn’t like the feel of. Different animals responded to the threat differently – some were active, confronting it. Others reacted and jetted away when touched, while others were avoidant, hiding from the stimulus. She saw this variation track individuals, demonstrating the possibility of octopus personality.

Adding plaything to the tank- a neutrally-buoyant pill bottle – and she saw octopuses engage in play. Some, predictably, seized the bottle and tried it in their beaks. But one found a water jet where she could play “catch” – she’d use her siphon to send the bottle towards the jet, and it would bounce back to her, letting her “bounce the ball”.

To test problem-solving, Mather believes in framing “ecologically relevant problems”. This suggests studying clams, a creature in an “arms race” with octopi. As the octopuses get stronger, the clams develop stronger hinge muscles. She tested species of clams for the strength of their hinge and discovered that her research animals would choose the easier ones to open, even though they preferred the taste of the tougher ones. And they use a variety of techniques – ripping with arms, as well as drilling with their beaks – to open the different species.

Don’t worry about octopuses taking over the world – not only is their structure wrong for life outside the oceans, but they have very short memories, appropriate for their short lifespans. But they’re fascinating, especially because their intelligence isn’t centered – cut off an arm and it has a great deal of capacity to act on its own.

6 Responses to “Jennifer Mather and octopus personality”

  1. ASP Lichten says:

    The plural of octopus is octopi, not octopuses. Idiot.

  2. Ethan says:

    Yep. Blogging four talks an hour for three days straight. I make mispellings and occasionally blow a plural. Always best to insult me, not just offer a helpful criticism. Asshole.

  3. Jean says:

    Actually Octopus is from the Greek therefore the correct plural is octopodes not octopi which implies Latin roots for the word. I think there are many acceptable plurals now, including octopi and octopuses, we speak a living language which allows for these changes!!!

  4. Anne says:

    Actually, the plural of octopus is octopuses. The reason is that Anglophones created the word by taking “octo” (meaning “eight”) from Greek and “pus” (meaning “foot”) from Latin and putting the root words together to create “octopus.” The word is then subject to English pluralization and therefore is pluralized by adding “es” to octopus.

  5. Random Dude says:

    Dang, here we are getting all upset about root-based pluralization when we’re supposed to be talkin’ about the intelligence of these amazing eight-legged creatures… makes me question how we define intelligence…

    So, let’s get down to our “Jacobian” business (that’s a vector calculus pun… Jacobian = first order). And speaking of vector calculus, I wonder if the functional differences in cephalopod neurochemistry are such that comparing octopus intelligence to human intelligence is even a worthwhile endeavor?

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  1. Animal Report » Octopus - [...] Jennifer Mather has been researching octopus intelligence for years. At a presentation at the TED conference earlier this month …

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