Another Life: Octopus’s reputation for intelligence extends its tentacles

The animal can learn ‘simple visual discriminations’ as quickly as a dog or cat


The city of my enraptured youth, Brighton, on the English Channel, flourished on new fashions. It persuaded the Victorians, and thence the western world, that walking into the sea while modestly attired was healthy and pleasurable. It gave them the world’s first aquarium and, when they tired of looking at fish, its first common octopus, retrieved from a coastal lobster pot in 1872.

“Great was the joy that reigned in ‘London-by-the-sea,’ ” wrote the aquarium’s resident naturalist, Henry Lee. “The new octopus became ‘the rage’. Visitors jostled each other, and waited their turn to obtain a peep at him.” But also, as he related in his little book, The Octopus: Or, the ‘Devil-Fish’ of Fiction and of Fact (1875, and archived online), “his career was short and his end sudden and shocking”.

Unlike most of its extensive tribe, the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) is notoriously difficult to contain in an aquarium tank left open at the top. Brighton’s specimen followed typical behaviour in waiting until nightfall, with nobody around, then climbing into the neighbouring tank, consuming a fish or two, and returning to its little grotto to doze away the day. The staff were mystified by the dwindling number of lumpsuckers, then saddened when the octopus itself disappeared. Needing to clean a tank, they had billeted its residents – larger spotted dogfish – on the octopus, and one of them had swallowed it whole.

Dark, dank cavern
My memories of the aquarium are also rather sad. I knew it just after the second World War, with Brighton’s pebble beaches newly cleared of barbed wire, anti-tank barricades and buried land mines. The aquarium, just across the road from the Palace Pier, was then a dark, dank cavern with algae-misted glass and a worryingly wet floor. If there was an octopus, it did not wish to greet me. Today, however, the Brighton aquarium is apparently transformed, with a brand-new octopus garden and a glass-bottomed boat gliding over it. It is one of 40 aquariums in the Sea Life chain of such centres that includes the one in Bray, Co Wicklow. Here, earlier this month, the staff declared a campaign to have octopuses, as sentient and individual creatures, removed from the human diet.

Type “don’t eat octopus” into Google and you find an affecting home video of little Luiz Antonio explaining to his mother why he won’t eat the octopus gnocchi on his plate. Having gently established that the octopus was once alive, like cows and chicken, he says he prefers all animals left alive and “standing up”. A little vegan in the making, obviously, and thus a rare human being.

The cognitive ability of octopuses (that’s correct, by the way: the stem is Greek, not Latin) has long been recognised. The US air force once paid for a research project that involved octopuses, wanting help with building tiny computers that could recognise patterns and home in on them, as cruise missiles do.

Octopuses “learn simple visual discriminations as quickly as do cats or dogs”. I quote from the late Martin Wells, of Cambridge University, who worked on this research and admired his subjects enormously: “An octopus in good form,” he wrote in his book Civilisation and the Limpet, “has a look of alert intelligence not shared by other marine animals.” But together with their value to science, Wells urged the fishing of octopuses, along with related squid and cuttlefish, as a source of ocean protein much neglected in these islands.

As invertebrate molluscs, the cephalopods (as this group is called) have been freely captured from the wild for laboratory research. Work on the giant nerves of the Atlantic squid (Loligo vulgaris), for example, earned a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1963 as a major advance for neurobiology. Whether cephalopods can experience distress or pain is still unclear, but they have been included in the EU’s new directive on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes, which regulates the taking of animals from the wild. How best to capture octopuses, how big their tanks should be and how various experimental miseries should be inflicted on them are questions that now, at least in theory, should concern our Government.

This island’s two most common kinds of octopus are the warty Octopus vulgaris of warm-water Europe, quite often a by-catch of trawlers off the south coast, and the smaller (50cm) curled octopus of my drawing (Eledone cirrhosa), with single rows of suckers, sometimes stranded in rocky pools anywhere around the coast. In August 2008 the trawling of a big Haliphron atlanticus southwest of the Aran Islands was seen as an omen of a steadily warming ocean.

Meanwhile, what of eating smaller octopus? The Irish is ochtapas, and the last five letters might remind regulars of Spanish holidays of how, like little Luiz Antonio, they should watch what’s on the plate.

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