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Researchers at the University of Chicago and a group at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan combined forces in the Octopus Genome Project. This huge undertaking maps out the entire DNA structure of this complex cephalopod. The Octopus facts, which were published in the science journal Nature, are simply incredible. Octopuses, not octopi, are so vastly different in their genetic makeup that they might as well be considered aliens from outer space. In uncovering the sequence, scientists found that octopuses have a significant expansion of a family of genes that play a role in neuronal development. A similar set of genes are found in humans, and until the Octopus facts were published, this gene expansion was believed to be a unique characteristic of vertebrates. Now, thanks to this research, we know that similar processes happened in octopuses.
Scientists have a hard enough time getting into the minds of our nearest relatives, the apes and monkeys. Octopuses? Forget about it. Our last common ancestor with the octopus was probably around 800 million years ago. The similar genes make up a neural network in their brains, which accounts for their quick ability to adapt and learn like humans. We also share a large brain, closed circulatory system, and eyes with an iris, retina, and lens. All these independently developed in species vastly different from our mammal origins. So how did this squishy sea-dwelling invertebrate evolve an intelligence that rivals the smartest among spined animals?
These questions first came up regarding Amphioctopus marginatus, the coconut octopus. Its name comes from its habit of carrying around a coconut shell used to defend itself. What makes it smart depends on intentionality. If the shell is intentionally carried around as a shield, the behavior would look intelligent; if it’s just instinctual, somewhat less so. The shell may not be evidence of smarts, but it definitely isn’t dumb. They have excellent vision, are capable of generating and storing both short-term and long-term memories, and can learn new tasks with ease. Some species even use tools and wild octopuses have been observed using rocks to block entrances to their dens. Paul the octopus had the ability to predict the winners in the 2010 World Cup, and who can forget the classic octopus intelligence test, opening that jam jar. But is opening a screw lid jar intelligent, or just an extension of its ability to open bivalves?
Octopuses have basic personalities, showing individual differences in traits such as aggression or engagement. They are known to play and can even learn how to solve problems by watching other octopuses, and they can remember the solutions, without practice, for several days. Their short-term and long-term memories are superb, so it is unwise to get on the wrong side of an octopus: their grudges can last a long time. Truman, an aquariumoctopus used his funnel, the siphon near the side of the head used to jet through the sea, to shoot a soaking stream of salt water at this woman whenever he got a chance. She left but returned several months later to visit. Truman, who hadn’t squirted anyone in the meanwhile, took one look at her and instantly soaked her again.
Questions regarding how smart the octopus is, have grown and grown. Octopuses develop a brain unlike that of almost any other intelligent creature. A huge discovery was the ability of the octopus to improve on its own genetic code. This is common in humans and other animals, but the ability at which the octopus can edit its own RNA is pretty wild; they are able to adapt their nerves. Octopus skin is studded with pigment-containing chromatophores, which lets the octopus change its appearance. Aristotle noticed this thousands of years ago, but Aristotle also wrote "the octopus is a stupid creature," so he was only half right. With their genes coded out, researchers can study exactly how the octopus can change its skin. This could lead to major breakthroughs in terms of creating garments and structures that could have instant camouflage ability.
Octopuses are Aliens
The scientists estimate that the octopus genome contains 2.7 billion base pairs – the chemical units of DNA – with long stretches of repeated sequences. This is particularly impressive considering these animals only live for a few years. It makes sense that evolution would give humans skills to form and retain relations with others, but cephalopods are not social (except when it comes to mating) and live brief lives. What sets them apart from any other invertebrate in the world might be that they evolved in an environment where they had to compete with fish for food, and avoid being eaten by the same predators that were eating the fish. Their vertebrate-like intelligence resulted from having to survive in a vertebrate dominated world. Octopuses are aliens or they might as well be given how little we know and how sophisticated they are. Perhaps they will come to rule the water that encompasses so much of our world. The scientists involved with the research were really just using a clever metaphor to highlight the unique complexity of the octopus genome that represents an important point on the tree of life for comparative evolutionary studies. Let’s be clear, according to Evolution 101, the octopus is related to every single organism on this planet, because all life on Earth is related.