Captive Octopuses Get Bored Unless You Give Them Puzzles

Over at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, the Steinhart Aquarium biologists say that it’s not enough to keep octopuses fed and healthy. The highly-intelligent cephalopods get unhappy if they don’t have things to do with their minds.


As you can see in this insanely cute video from the aquarium, there are many ways to keep octopuses engaged. Biologists give them toys and puzzles–the animals are especially fond of unscrewing jars to get at food inside. Though octopuses are generally not social animals, many studies have offered compelling evidence for their cleverness: They use tools; they can extemporize brilliantly when trying to hide; and a recent paper even suggests that they engage in warfare. Also, in a cool alien detail, they have distributed intelligence. Octopus arms can think independently of each other.

It’s hard for humans to admit that other animals might be as smart as we are. But at least at Cal Academy, the biologists understand that octopuses are so intelligent that caring for them means keeping their brains as busy as their bodies.

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Out of curiosity then, how many generations would it take of selective breeding to end up with an octopus we could reasonably communicate with? Since they’re not terribly social, breeding them for group behavior might be a good place to start so that they interact with each other and develop language.

Then again, we’ve been breeding dogs for thousands of years and all we’ve managed to do with them is make them cute and to make them desire human assistance when confronted with a problem... I suppose they’ve picked up some abstract concepts since I don’t think following the direction a human points at is analogous to anything wolves do though.

On a related note, what if we selectively bred dolphins? They’re already social mammals that are very intelligent. I imagine they’d be easier than octopi. Tool use would be limited. I suppose elephants might be a better choice then, at least in terms of fewer generations.