I am, I confess, a big ol’ fan of marine life. I love to go to Aquariums. Love it. I am entranced by sea life. Take me whale watching and you can see me faint with happiness. Find me an otter and hear me squee with joy. Thus, I think it appropriate that I salute the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which first opened it’s doors 30 years ago on October 20, 1984.
The aquarium is famously built on Cannery Row in the building which formerly housed the Hovden sardine cannery. Although it was originally marine biologists at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station who brain-stormed the idea of building an aquarium on the bay, the aquarium wouldn’t have become reality without a $40 million philanthropical grant from David Packard (co-founder of Hewlett-Packard).
The aquarium has recently rolled out an exhibit dedicated to cephalopods, aptly named “Tentacles”. I approve, because it turns out that my favorite cephalopod (yes, I have a favorite cephalopod; I am a nerd), the octopus, is surprisingly smart in a way that baffles current scientific paradigms. Inasmuch as the octopus has a tiny brain, it was assumed the octopus was a stimulus-response creature on par with the clam. Although it turns out that the octopus has a big brain for an invertebrate, it is still the owner of a wee brain compared to a vertebrate animal.
The octopus, in short, is smart when it ought NOT to be.
It has long been held as a scientific truth that brain size to body ratio determined the potential intelligence or consciousness of a species. However, that paradigm is having to shift. It turns out that many animals can be very “smart” – i.e can communicate and perform complex behaviors – without a ‘big’ brain or a brain analogous to the human brain. Birds, which don’t have a neocortex like humans. It has long be supposed that a big neocortex is what makes humans smart. For example, “humans have a large neocortex as a percentage of total brain matter when compared with other mammals … there is only a 30:1 ratio of neocortical gray matter to the size of the medulla in the brainstem of chimpanzees, while the ratio is 60:1 in humans.” Scientists were therefore flabbergasted to learn that:
“Finches use strict rules of syntax. New Caledonian crows show the advanced capability of metacognition, as well as counting, making and using tools as well or better than many nonhuman primates (see also), and displaying remarkable memory. Crows also remember specific people, cars, and urban situations and hold grudges with specific people and cars for several years. Some birds show advanced planning and art. Alex, the world renowned African Grey parrot, did arithmetic, mastered same-different relationships, invented words, and the night before he died told his doctor friend that he loved his friend and researcher, Dr. Irene Pepperberg.”
Likewise, the octopus has a brain even “less” human-like or developed than a bird but displays behaviors, like playing and learning, that refutes the current paradigm of interspecies brain function. The more we learn about the octopus, the more impressive the cephalopod becomes. If you want to know more about this amazing animal, I recommend Katherine Harmon Courage’s book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea.
Also, this backpack:
Again, best birthday wishes to Monterey Bay Aquarium, the place working to understand and conserve fascinating sea life like the octopus!