Not too long ago, I blogged about some of the cool things I’ve been learning about octopuses (not the least of which is that the proper plural is “octopuses,” not the much more elegant-sounding “octopi.” Sigh.).

Then my mom sent me an article about octopus intelligence. The article used words like “alien” and “blender” to describe the octopus’s unique high level of intelligence, as well as how that intelligence is organized and expressed.

Apparently, octopuses have more genes than people do – approximately 10,000 more. They also have genes found in no other species to date. Also, the genes inside an octopus that should stick together to do their shared jobs don’t – they like to spread out all over the genome instead.

Octopuses are better at camouflage than highly trained military operatives. They can turn all kinds of colors and textures. They can squeeze their gigantic heads and all eight legs into tiny boxes…if the motivation is right.

In fact, many will carry hinged shells around with them as they travel the ocean floor, and if a predator happens along, they will quickly fold themselves into the shell to hide.

PBS shows an octopus with its personal handy disguise – a hinged shell.

Oh, and apparently their genome doesn’t behave the way other genomes do. 

Apparently octopuses use their RNA (which, from what I gather, are kind of like DNA’s little messengers) much more extensively than most beings do to make all sorts of new proteins. These proteins can do lots of neat things, including give cells orders to divide or take on specialized job functions.

Researchers now suspect this is why the octopus is one of the few sea creatures that seems able to readily adapt to the planet’s increasingly toxic oceans – that and its incredibly short lifespan of just four years on average.

In other words, when you know how to use your genes to adapt quickly to new toxins and you don’t have to do it for very long, you stand a pretty good chance of both outliving your odds and passing the new genetic protections you’ve developed along to your offspring in turn.

And then there are the anecdotes – for example, the story of the curious octopus who approached a diver and took him on a guided tour of the octopus’s lair.

There are so many octopus escape stories, some of which sound just crazy enough to be true – like the one about the octopus named Inky who escaped from an aquarium by sliding down a drainpipe to swim free into the ocean.

Octopuses can make and use tools. They can unscrew lids from the inside of the jar. They can direct squirted water with unerring accuracy (sufficient to turn off lights from a distance just by aiming and spraying at the light switch!).

All of this is leading some researchers, scientists and enthusiasts to pose the question: are octopuses self-aware?

In other words, do octopuses know they are alive? Are they aware of being an individual, apart from other individuals? Is the sensation some divers and keepers report when they meet eyes with an octopus that the octopus is actively curious, or interested, or unafraid – is that real?

I guess I don’t have as much trouble as some people answering these kinds of questions. To me, if a non-human being looks self-aware, acts-self aware and makes me wonder if it is self-aware, it is probably self-aware. Sort of like the principle of Occum’s Razor I have always loved – “all other things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one.”

It probably helps that I’m not attached to being the smartest species. I’m definitely not the smartest of my species. I learn a TON from my own animals (one feathered and two shelled) – in fact, I suspect they mentor and teach me a lot more than I do them.

But most of all, it is a delight to feel like I’ve make a connection across species, whether that collection can be quantified or verified or “proven” by research or data or observation or not.

Today’s Takeaway: What do you think? Have you ever had any experiences of other beings that suggest species other than homo sapiens could be really smart or self-aware or both?