Friday, February 11, 2011

Cephalopods: An Intelligence of a Different Color

Ok, so it is common knowledge that certain primates, cetaceans (like dolphins), and even birds have what we would call "intelligence". But what about an octopus? According to scientists they and other cephalopods are pretty smart in certain areas, especially for invertebrates.
One area they show intelligence in is problem solving. They can navigate mazes, find clever ways to escape their enclosures, and even figure out how to open jars and bottles, as shown in this video:

Another sign of their intelligence is the fact they they have been known to use tools. They scavenge for discarded coconut shells to use later for shelter or a lair. What is cool about this is that they are collecting the tools (which may be evidence of planning for the near future) and are assembling them for their own use. That is some pretty advanced stuff, considering tool use is what we used to think separated us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Here's a video of a veined octopus showing off his tool use:

One of the most fascinating signs of intelligence that cephalopods like octopuses and cuttlefish display is their amazing camouflage. According to scientists, it is not just a simple reflex reaction to stimuli. The animal assesses the environment around it and chooses from a number of options in it's camouflage "tool-box". Biologists recognize 6 mechanisms of camouflage:
  • general background resemblance,
  • deceptive resemblance (including mimicry),
  • disruptive coloration,
  • countershading/concealment of the shadow,
  • rarity through polymorphism, and
  • cryptic behavior and vigilance.
Cephalopods, unlike other animals that use only one or two mechanisms, use all six! They do it with such speed and versatility that they put the rest of the animal kingdom to shame in the camouflage game, as shown in this video (especially at 1:40):

As you can see, mammals and birds aren't the only smart ones in the bunch! For a more in depth look at some of the studies scientists are doing on cephalopod intelligence, check out Marine Biologist Roger Hanlon's site. for more general information and videos on octopuses and other cephalopods, head to ARKive.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Science is for everyone

As far back as I can remember, Science and Nature have captured my imagination. I spent long hours in my backyard examining blades of grass with a magnifying glass, finding interesting rocks, and trying to befriend the birds and squirrels that shared my little world.

Early on my parents nurtured my inquisitive nature by giving me books that were full of kid-sized experiments and answers to questions like, "why is the sky blue?". At a time when most families ate dinner in front of the TV, mine sat around a light-up globe and took turns finding and learning about other countries. Rainy days would find me sitting near my Mom and flipping through stacks of National Geographic magazines that she kept like encyclopedias.

My parents showed me the world as a place full of wonder, color, and mystery. They answered my many questions when they could and pointed me in the right direction to find answers when they couldn't. Most important of all, they taught me that the answer was only the beginning. Answers lead to more and more questions, and that is a good thing.

Here's the thing: my parents weren't scientists. But they nurtured in me a healthy scientific curiosity in me that continues to grow to this day. That is why I am starting this blog. I am not a scientist, but science is not just for those with PhDs. It is for all of us who have questions. It is for all of us who find wonder in the world around us. I hope I can spark your curiosity.