Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Octopus Arms Have Minds of Their Own

Octopus vulgaris.003 - Aquarium Finisterrae
© Drow_male (via Wikimedia Commons)
In recent years, we have learned that the octopus is rather intelligent. These little guys have figured out puzzles and mazes. They can open jars and child-proof pill bottles. Octopus keepers often have to come up with ingenious methods to secure tanks to keep the critters from escaping. There are anecdotes all over the internet about octopuses/octopi* sneaking out of their tanks, crawling to a neighboring tank to snack on the fish and then return to their own tanks. Sometimes an octopus who is bored rather than hungry will also cause mischief -- just ask the staff at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. They came in to work one morning to find that an octopus had entertained herself the night before by taking apart the tank's recycling system valve. The place was flooded, and the employees had to work frantically to get everything cleaned up before the day's school groups arrived. If the octopus could talk, she could have said, "Sorry, but my arms have minds of their own," and she wouldn't have been lying. According to an article in Scientific American, only about one-third of an octopus's neurons are in the brain. The rest are found throughout the body, primarily in the legs. The suckers have their own ganglia (bundles of neurons) that allows the octopus to control them individually. They can even pinch with those suckers.

*Though many people use "octopi" as the plural for octopus, others object to this form. They say it comes from the assumption that "octopus" is a Latin word, when it actually comes from Greek (oktapous, meaning "eight-footed"). "Octopodes" would be the Greek plural, but it's rarely used (probably because people would look at you strangely if you did). Merriam-Webster says that either "octopuses" or "octopi" is correct. I personally think "octopuses" sounds... odd. Maybe it's because I can't hear/read/write it without thinking of "Octopussy."

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