It isn't every day in the ocean that an octopus comes across a jar to open—especially one that contains a tasty live crab. Which is why it is particularly impressive that these invertebrates can quickly figure out how to twist off a cap in captivity.
The treat-in-a-jar trick has long been a favorite activity to give octopuses in aquariums. Just like humans, octopuses get faster at these manipulation tasks with practice. And one octopus in New Zealand might just have broken the jar-opening speed record, using his many suckers to twist off a cap and grab his meaty prize—all in under a minute, the Marlborough Express reported today.
Ozy the octopus has been residing at the Island Bay Marine Education Center in Wellington, New Zealand since November. In his short stay he has proved to be particularly "precocious," according to those at the center who have worked with him. So keepers there began giving him glass jars—containing live crabs—to open. (Check out a writeup here for a video of Ozy completing this feat.) Although there isn't an official octopus-opening-jars record book, many other speedy specimens in the scientific literature come in closer to the two-minute mark.
Yesterday, with a riveted audience watching his every sinuous move, Ozy managed to twist open a glass jar and nab his crab in 54 seconds flat—what appears to be a record time (and is arguably faster than I can open a pickle jar, and he did it with a lot less cursing).
Another octopus, Cassandra, also tested at the Island Bay Marine Education Center got close to this speed but ultimately failed to break the one-minute mark in 2012. (Still, I would keep the scotch bottle out of reach.)
Researchers working about a decade ago gave the Seattle Aquarium's giant Pacific octopus, Pandora, the same task. She opened her first bottle in about 15 minutes. After that, she was able to easily twist off the lids in an average of two minutes. So scientists there decided to up the difficulty level by giving their charges childproof bottles to open instead of plain twist-off lids. To inspire the octopus to keep at it, researchers filled the bottle with pieces of raw herring and peppering the bottle with small holes so that the octopus could smell the prize inside.
The first attempt, made by giant Pacific octopus Billye, took about 55 minutes. But with some practice, she could execute the push-and-turn trick—without any instruction—in an average of five minutes. ("These results do not imply octopuses are smarter than human children," who these bottles are designed to thwart, Roland Anderson, a lead biologist and researcher on the study later wrote.)
These trails aren't just for the amusement of the human keepers. This sort of higher-level stimulation is necessary for octopuses in captivity. Without enough to keep these intelligent animals occupied, octopuses can easily become bored and despondent—and in some cases even start eating their own arms.
And at the Island Bay Marine Education Center in New Zealand, the keepers plan to release Ozy back into the bay, where he had been caught by fishermen, in the coming weeks. By challenging the octopus with cognitive and physical tasks, rather than spoiling him with easy handouts, the scientists hope that their cephalopodian guest will be primed and ready to return to his life beneath the waves. Where he will have to fish out his own dinner.
To learn more about the other feats of octopus intelligence, open Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea.
Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen