Extraordinary Claim: Do Octopi Create Art or Just Empty the Garbage?

When I talked to students at Penn State University last Tuesday, some of them wondered how they could avoid being duped by alleged “stories” like this one, about an allegedly artistic giant cephalopod.

As I explained in an earlier post, there’s a difference between a news story and a press release, and it was a press release that got this story going. That doesn't mean it's wrong, but there were plenty of red flags. One of the passages  that stopped me was this:

It also looked like the bones had been purposefully rearranged. That it got him thinking about a particular modern predator that is known for just this sort of intelligent manipulation of bones.

"Modern octopus will do this," McMenamin said. What if there was an ancient, very large sort of octopus, like the kraken of mythology. "I think that these things were captured by the kraken and taken to the midden and the cephalopod would take them apart."

It seemed weird that whoever wrote this press release never explained what the scientist meant by intelligent manipulation or what evidence he had to back this statement. Was he talking about making artwork or perhaps tools? Or is taking out the trash enough to qualify as intelligent?

If anyone would know the answer it would be biologist Jennifer Mather of Canada’s University of Lethbridge. She studies cognition in octopi and is co-author of the recent book, Octopus, the ocean’s intelligent invertebrate.

She said octopi in the wild do manipulate stones to help fill in the openings of their shelters. As for shells and bones left over from their meals, they routinely throw them outside when they finish eating. It’s nothing all that artistic, though. “They’re just throwing out the junk,” she said.

It’s admirably tidy of them, and more than some humans will do. And there are many interpretations of the word art, but this would be stretching it. It's not “intelligent manipulation” of the kind that would suggest cephalopods can create self-portraits from their dinner scraps. 

Still, octopi have shown a number of types of intelligent behavior, said Mather. You can learn more about cephalopod intelligence in Monday’s column, as well as the surprising cognitive feats of fish.