How smart is an octopus?

22 November 2021

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The unique brainpower of octopuses – known for their intelligence and Houdini-like escapes – have been revealed by Queensland Brain Institute researchers.

Dr Wen-Sung Chung is part of a team that studied four octopus species and used MRI techniques to produce detailed 3D images for comparing their unique brain structures.

He said octopus brains varied, depending on where a species lived, when it was active and if it interacted with other animals.

“The octopus is a master of camouflage, capable of solving complex tasks and their cognitive ability is said to approach that of some small mammals,” Dr Chung said.

“We investigated four species, including one deep-sea octopus, one solitary nocturnal species and two different reef dwellers active during daylight.”

Different octopus, different brain

Dr Chung said the octopus found in deep waters had a smoothed brain similar to marsupials and rodents, suited for its slow pace of life and limited interactions with other animals.

The reef octopuses had a significantly larger brain with some properties similar to primates, adapted for complex visual tasks and social interaction in a busy, well-lit environment.

“These octopuses have some remarkably complex behaviours not known in other octopuses,” Dr Chung said. 

“For example, collaborative hunting with reef fish has been recorded, where the octopus usually leads and coral trout join by either actively seeking prey or opportunistically snatching small organisms flushed out by the octopus.

“The ability to receive and respond to gestures between different species as part of collaborative hunting demonstrates that octopus species have complex cognitive abilities.”

Brain structure linked to vision, behaviour

The differences in brain structures between species relates to the size of the brain’s surface area, with a larger surface area indicates a more complex nervous system and increased cognitive ability.

Professor Justin Marshall heads the team that was first to discover the differences in brain structure, opening the door to a better understanding of the complexity and evolution of these apparently “smart” animals.

The team’s ongoing research aimed to provide insights into how octopus brain structure is linked to behaviour, vision and advanced cognition, Professor Marshall said.

The research has been published in Current Biology (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2021.10.070). 

Media: Dr Wen-Sung Chung, w.chung1@uq.edu.au, +61 409 551 126 or Erik de Wit, QBI Communications, e.dewit@uq.edu.au, +61 447 305 979

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