Puzzles & Quizzes

Captive Octopuses Need Intellectual Stimulation Or Else They Get Bored

The octopus is nature's own eight-legged Einstein. Call it high-maintenance, but this smart cephalopod has unique needs when it comes to staying happy and healthy in captivity. Throw 'em an intellectually stimulating bone, here!

Anna tackling her puzzle box.


Think you can keep an octopus busy with some treats alone? That's cute. According to the Steinhart Aquarium biologists at California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, captive octopuses get unhappy if they don't have something to stimulates their minds. In their case, toys and puzzles — like unscrewing jars — do the trick. In adorable news, forming trusting bonds with them and engaging in "tactile sessions" (aka petting their tentacles) is also enriching interaction.

But when it comes to mind games, just one puzzle isn't going to cut it. You're not underestimating octopuses, are you? A 2016 study showed that octopuses are able to solve puzzles that require pushing and pulling actions, and learn quickly as a puzzle is presented to them in different ways. Given their behavioral flexibility, they can remember solutions to puzzles they're frequently given. Nope, you're not foolin' them.

Because of this, the New England Aquarium octopuses are given a rotating selection of puzzles in the form of clear acrylic boxes with different metal latches that seal little snacks inside. These are the kinds of latches that would get you stuck in a bathroom stall for an extra two minutes. No exaggeration — an octopus at Living Coasts zoo and aquarium in the UK named Ursula can actually solve complex puzzles faster than people can. Show-off.

Behold, Mere Mortals

If you're not convinced of octo-smarts at this point, come back after you've done some soul-searching. Octopuses can literally edit their own genes, for goodness sake. Even their disembodied parts are smart: Detached octopus arms can think independently. Beyond the usual key indicators of intelligence and complexity in an animal, studies suggest that cephalopods (octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid) may be able to see with their skin. Can we officially dub them aliens yet?

Science Today: Octopus Enrichment

Written by Joanie Faletto August 7, 2017

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