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Intelligent invertebrates provide food for thought

Giant octopus breaks shark's back

Recently, I was out for dim sum with friends. There was a mix-up in the order, and to my horror, the server arrived at the table with a tray of cuttlefish. Oh well, said my friend, we ordered it, we eat it. Not me. Im a bit of a marine biology nerd and a fan of Coleoidea (the subclass of cephalopods that includes squid, cuttlefish and octopuses). The undersea habits of Coleoidea refute a widely held theory that complex intelligence has only evolved among vertebrates, animals with spines.

Here are five fun facts Ive learned about octopuses (not octopi), which I have slightly modified from the CBC website:

1) The octopus is more closely related to an oyster or a snail than to the many-tentacled Rupert Murdoch.

2) They have three hearts, nine brains, and use abalone shells as hats when attending undersea gala events.

3) The female octopus gives birth to hundreds of offspring and then goes off to die. This means that American conservatives will never cite these creatures as examples of family values in nature.

4) The octopus can quickly change its skin colour, markings and texture at will. They can even take on the texture and bright hues of the ocean floor. This flamboyant talent for camouflage has been described as fabulous by gay oceanographers, and promising by U.S. military contractors.

5) An octopus knows exactly how big it is and will not attempt escape when confined if the exit is too small. Instead, it will settle into a corner, its cephalopod brain recapitulating two thousand years of human philosophical inquiry, starting with Aristotelian logic and ending at dismal, French-style existentialism.

OK, Im exaggerating their intelligence slightly. Yet in captivity, octopuses have been known to slither from a tank overnight to covertly heist prey from a neighbouring tank, and put the lids back in place when they return. They can pry open jars with multiple forms of seals, and an octopus watching such a performance from behind a glass barrier can perform the task that much faster. They can appear indistinguishable from coral reefs and waving fronds of algae, and a range of marine animals.

The cuttlefish is a particularly amazing creature. When hunting, the broadhead cuttlefish forms its body into a delta shape and lights up like a character from the film Tron. It shimmers with bioluminescence, mesmerizing its crustacean prey into an easily-captured lunch.

The cuttlefish does more than wear its heart on its sleeveit wears its feelings all over its body. Its shifting colours register the creatures emotional state, from aggressive to submissive, and all behavioural shades in between. Juvenile male Australian Cuttlefish disguise themselves as females in order to sneak past the other males and mate with the females. What really got me about this species was a scene from a recent nature documentary. After a mating, a shimmering male cuttlefish lay next to its mate, and his waving fins appeared to be gently stroking her side. Perhaps I mistook the cuttlefish for a cuddlefish; all I know is that after I saw this, the species was outlawed from my dinner plate for good.

Not that all varieties of Coleoidea are touchy-feely krakens. The giant Northern Pacific octopus, Enteroctopus dofleini, has been known to kill three to four-foot sharks by breaking their spines. Were talking about a highly intelligent invertebrate that can take on one of the top predators of the seas. No wonder theyve survived for so long. Triumphs of evolutionary design, octopuses have been around since the Devonian, 360 million years ago. A title of another recent CBC documentary perfectly sums up their time-tested marine biology: Aliens of the Deep. Otherworldly intelligence is no further than off the coast of B.C., home to the Northern Pacific Octopus.

I suspect if real aliens from space wanted to study human beings up close and undetected, they would do the cephalopod thing, and go camouflaged. Sort of like cuttlefish disguised as flounders. If extraterrestrials moved among us in this manner, wed never know the difference. Unless, of course, they considered us dim sum. So if a stranger ever approaches you and lights up like a character from Tron, dont just stand there stunned. Run. And if you catch a glimpse of a tentacle, sprint.