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The Octopus by Layla Saad

Animal Intelligence

Octopuses, or octopi (both are correct), are fascinating creatures, and through many studies it is obvious that they are very intelligent. There are about 300 species of octopuses and they can change color, physical appearance, squirt water, ink, and squeeze into the smallest spaces possible. They experiment, problem solve, plan ahead of time, play, and use tools – all of which are indicators of intelligence.

Experimentation and Problem Solving:

            Jennifer Mather is a comparative psychologist at the University of Lethbridge in Canada who has been studying octopuses for 35 years. In one study, she explains “[My research team and I] give them clams and mussels in order to figure out which they like best. They are very strong, but we found they prefer mussels because mussels are easier to open. They switched to clams when we put the clams on a half shell. They clearly made a decision to go with what was easiest. They were selective about what technique they would use with what species. We decided we would cheat on them: We took one of the easier ones and wired them shut.” The octopuses quickly realized something was different and changed their technique of opening it. This might seem easy, but most simple animals only rely on one way of doing things and cannot easily switch.

            Roland Anderson, Mather's co-author of the book Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate, reports that octopuses can open screw-on lids and even learned to open the childproof caps on Extra Strength Tylenol pill bottles—a “skill” that many humans with university degrees find difficult.

Octopus by giselaroyo


            While Mather was observing an octopus in the wild, she noticed something astounding. The octopus returned to its home and began cleaning in front of it. Then it suddenly swam to some rocks, picked one up,
and placed it near its house. It got two more, then crawled inside the home
and carefully arranged the three objects in front. Then it went to sleep.

            Mather says the octopus “must have had some concept,” she said, “of what it
wanted to make itself feel safe enough to go to sleep.”


            One of the things that sets “intelligent” animals apart from others is the behavior of playing. One study discovered that octopuses play in boring situations. The researchers placed octopuses in empty tanks with only a floating pill bottle and waited to see what would happen. After a while, a couple of them began to “play”. One octopus blew a jet of water at the pill bottle and that caused it to go over a water jet in the tank and come back to the octopus. The other blew a jet of water to make the pill bottle slide across the surface of the tank. These two individual animals did it in a sequence over 20 times. Not only can they play, but they do it differently.

            They can solve complex puzzles after 3 tries, and one octopus disassembled a water valve and sprayed 200 gallons of seawater around the room overnight. He played with the water, shooting it into all different places and onto other tanks, seeing how far he could spray it.

Tool use:

            One observed octopus laid a clutch of eggs in a concrete block and she defended it with a rock from a sea cucumber that had wandered too close. A scientist filmed an octopus discovering a coconut shell in the sea and using it like a sled, using its legs to slide around in the coconut shell. It also climbed in and closed the two halves around itself as a hiding place. See the video below.


            Other than those signs of intelligence, there are many displays of sneakiness, something odd in animal behavior. Mather says “... an octopus got out of its tank at night when no one was watching, went to the tank next door and ate one of the lumpfish and went back to his own tank and was sitting there the next morning. The aquarium lost several lumpfish before they figured out who was responsible.” A similar story my Biology teacher related was that the octopuses would climb out of their tanks at night, unlock a female's tank, climb in to mate, lock it back up to cover their tracks and crawl back their own tank. Some follow the researchers around the lab.

            The most fascinating of all, to me, is something a fisherman complained about. His job was to catch small octopuses for lab experimentation. They needed to be alive so he would put them in a very tall bucket. They would climb out and crawl over to an icebox with fish in it when no one was looking. The octopuses would open the icebox, carefully pull the top layer off and eat the fish from below. They replaced the fish on top and crawled back to the bucket. When the fishermen opened the icebox to get bait, he didn't notice anything wrong until he used the top layer and found the bottom empty. The octopuses were clearly covering their tracks and sneaking around.


Click here to watch a 2-min video about an octopus playing with a coconut shell "sled" on YouTube. Or, watch one using a coconut shell to hide from divers.

Learn about the different personalities octopi have by reading Sy Montgomery's articles below!


Sources & Additional Reading*:

Borell, B. (2009, February 27). Are octopuses smart? Scientific American.
Retrieved from

Montgomery, Sy. (2011, November/December). Deep Intellect. Orion. Retrieved

Montgomery, Sy. (2011, November 10). Interview with an Octopus. Blog.
Retrieved from

Montgomery, Sy, Roland Anderson. "Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate"

*None of the content in "Additional Reading" resources is related to, nor do we confirm the authenticity or views expressed therein.