Did a cuttlefish write that?


So enter the comparative psychologists.

Nicola Clayton did not start studying cuttlefish. A professor at Cambridge, she has built her career around the remarkable behavior of the scrub jay, a small blue-black bird that stores food for later. In 1998, she and her colleagues showed that birds can remember how long they haven’t been hiding food. They can plan for the future, hiding food in places where they have reason to believe they will be hungry later.

Their behavior is more sophisticated than simply learning that food will appear if you press a button or recognize a pattern, which many animals can do. Apart from monkeys and other corvids, such as crows, few animals studied so far possess the full portfolio of mental abilities demonstrated by these birds.

But cuttlefish and other cephalopods can be an intriguing test case. When octopus and cuttlefish hunt, they don’t take the same route two days in a row, marine biologists have observed. Comparative psychologist Christelle Jozet-Alves wondered if this meant that they had a memory like that of corvids, able to relive what had happened to them in the past. In 2013, with Dr Clayton and a collaborator, she published an enticing cuttlefish study suggesting they did. Dr Clayton, Dr Schnell and their colleagues began to wonder: do cuttlefish have any idea about the future and the recent past? Can they make decisions about what they think is likely to happen in the future?

Octopuses have long amazed observers with their apparent cunning – in a YouTube clip with over 2 million views, an octopus picks up coconut shells and carries them away, perhaps for later use as tools. Squids also have large brains and sophisticated behavior. But cuttlefish are easier to grow in the lab than squid and easier to work with than octopuses, which are often distant and may refuse to engage with an experimenter, Dr Schnell said.

There is also, of course, the Houdini factor.

“You get little escape artists with octopuses. You walk in in the morning and no matter how close you shut an aquarium you will find them crawling, ”she said.


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