Apr 142012

The octopus may well be the most alien creature we encounter on earth – with intelligent minds and personalities that are near impossible to understand. Take their brains, for instance: they have 130 million neurons (we have one billion), but 75% of their neurons are located in their arms. It would be like us having three-quarters of our minds located in our arms and legs. Call it a distributed mind or consciousness if you will. We have no idea how they think.

Or how they see.

Yes, they have eyes remarkably like human eyes (though one eye will be dominate), though they seem to be color-blind. Yet, put them in colorful surroundings and they immediately change their skin color to adapt.

Here’s one theory from an article in Orion Magazine, “Deep Intellect: Inside the Mind of the Octopus,” which is well worth reading in full:

“Meeting an octopus,” writes Godfrey-Smith, “is like meeting an intelligent alien.” Their intelligence sometimes even involves changing colors and shapes. One video online shows a mimic octopus alternately morphing into a flatfish, several sea snakes, and a lionfish by changing color, altering the texture of its skin, and shifting the position of its body. Another video shows an octopus materializing from a clump of algae. Its skin exactly matches the algae from which it seems to bloom—until it swims away.

For its color palette, the octopus uses three layers of three different types of cells near the skin’s surface. The deepest layer passively reflects background light. The topmost may contain the colors yellow, red, brown, and black. The middle layer shows an array of glittering blues, greens, and golds. But how does an octopus decide what animal to mimic, what colors to turn? Scientists have no idea, especially given that octopuses are likely colorblind.

But new evidence suggests a breathtaking possibility. Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and University of Washington researchers found that the skin of the cuttlefish Sepia officinalis, a color-changing cousin of octopuses, contains gene sequences usually expressed only in the light-sensing retina of the eye. In other words, cephalopods—octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid—may be able to see with their skin. 

And it goes on. Despite their intelligence, they live solitary lives – another octopus is only a threat or possible mate. And mating, of all things, quickly leads to dementia and death. So, solitary lives, distributed minds, skin that may “see”, sex, dementia, and death. This has all the makings of a sci-fi novel set in the future.