Lurking at the Aquarium, Brilliant Houdinis of the Deep

Shania, the octopus, gloms on to a Mr. Potato head toy that has been filled with food (dead fish) and dropped into her tank at the aquarium
A smelt-filled Mr. Potato Head is sacrificed to Shania the octopus. The easily bored sea creatures require diversion. (Bill O'Leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A leading indicator of octopus intelligence is that they get bored.

A leading indicator of human intelligence is that the humans at Washington's National Aquarium have figured out this, despite long-standing prejudice against octopuses: That they are invertebrates , all squish and shape-change, and one of their greatest tricks is squeezing through something that's the dimension of their eye -- which makes them sound like worms.

Out of hunger for amusement -- not necessarily food or freedom -- they can maneuver out of tanks whose covers have been held down by 40 pounds of concrete blocks, and climb into the tanks of other sea creatures and eat them. They can die of boredom -- by climbing out, but not finding a tank to climb back in. Perhaps recalling the suicide note of British actor George Sanders: "Goodbye. I am leaving because I am bored."

Hence, while better-behaved angelfish and clams entertain themselves, it is the job of the aquarium staff to entertain octopuses as if they were bright, spoiled and manipulative children demanding attention.

Just now, one of those humans has dropped a green plastic alien action figure into the tank.

"Oooooo," croons the crowd as a 6-month-old, five-pound great Pacific octopus stretches out a long, red arm. She lassos the alien's head and swings it toward her mouth.

"What's he doing with the alien?" worries Patrick Orwin, 9.

Then a pair of big blue feet splashes into the tank. The octopus drops the alien and reaches for the feet, which sink fast. The objects are followed by a brown body, a Tom Selleck mustache, a red Bozo nose and a green plastic ball cap.

"Mr. Potato Head!" a few children squeal, and immediately Shania (who came from Canada and was dubbed Shania Twain by the aquarium's director) hugs herself around him. Minutes pass. The octopus-keeper has hidden smelt inside the plastic potato, but so far, Shania ignores the food. She's more into snuggling.

"You guys!" shouts a boy in the crowd. "Look at that! Look at that !"

Ah, the creepy-crawly creature, the swarming arms, that deep-sea demeanor. This is the bearer of intelligence?

"That was my attitude, too," confesses science writer Eugene Linden, who has written about animal intelligence since the 1970s and had focused, mostly, on the "big-brained" creatures such as apes, dolphins, elephants and whales. "I shared all the prejudices everybody else has."


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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