Underwater Brains: How Smart is an Octopus?

You probably know that an octopus has eight arms and can camouflage itself. Do you know how smart one is?

Oct 11, 2023byJill Horton
how smart is an octopus

Octopuses are intriguing aquatic animals to watch. That is if you can spot one. They love to blend in with their surroundings. One species, the mimic octopus, can even make itself look like a totally different animal!

How smart is an octopus, though? What is it capable of? Follow along and find out!

Stylish Homemakers

octopus ocean den
Image credit:sandrine RONGÈRE from Pixabay

Octopuses can build doors. Seriously, they gather materials from their surroundings and use them to make a barrier in front of their dens. Octopuses also take pride in decorating their homes! They use seashells and shiny objects they find on the ocean floor to spruce their places up.

While most octopuses are loners, Octopus tetricus enjoy the social life. In places where food is easy to come by, but shelter is lacking, “gloomy octopuses” build oceanic communities. Groups of dens exist with walls of rocks and shells, providing apartment-like housing. Don’t worry, though. This Australian- and New Zealand-dwelling type isn’t depressed. Their name comes from their murky grey or brown appearance.

Masters of Disguise and Trickery

octopus ocean floor
Image credit: Pia B. on Pexels

The mimic octopus has more tricks up its proverbial sleeve than appearing like a different animal. It can behave like one. To avoid predators, this cephalopod scares them away with its imitation of deadlier marine life. A mimic octopus studies the way others swim and act. Then, it prevents a bigger animal from making it lunch by faking it out!

Pacific striped octopuses play pranks on unsuspecting prey. This species scares its meal into action. They sneak up on other animals and poke them with the tip of an arm. When the spooked creature tries to dart away, it ends up ensnared in the Pacific striped octopus’ other waiting arms. Once stuck to the suckers, the target is further paralyzed when injected with the cephalopod’s poisonous saliva. Then, it’s game over, and the lights are turned out.

Escape Artists

octopus bright colors
Image credit: Diane Picchiottino on Unsplash

They aren’t magicians, per se, but octopuses can perform disappearing acts! Those held in captivity are notorious for escaping their tanks. There are even various stories out there of scientists discovering that one of these creatures helped itself to a meal from a neighboring tank or other similar shenanigans.

How do they do it, though? Octopuses are keenly observant animals. They study human actions and remember patterns. Because octopuses’ bodies are primarily soft tissue, it’s much easier for them to squeeze between spaces most creatures couldn’t fit through. They can bend and twist into positions that would make a professional contortionist jealous, too. All of these things add up to make leaving an aquarium and getting into hijinks an easy task.

Octopuses Have How Many Suckers?

octopus suckers
Image credit: Serena Repice Lentini on Unsplash

Those suckers are surprisingly strong. Each one is powerful enough to grab and hold up to a whopping 35 pounds! Octopus suckers range in size from smaller than a bottle cap to a diameter that measures slightly more than a large paper clip. All eight arms contain 280 suckers a piece, making a total of 2,240!

What does this body part have to do with an octopus’ intelligence, though? I’m glad you asked! An amazing amount of information flows through suckers. Each one moves as a separate piece and detects the taste and feel of whatever an octopus touches with it. Without its suckers, an octopus wouldn’t have the same skills to move objects around. They play a crucial role in the animal’s ability to examine and interact with its surroundings.

Tools and Tactics

octopus swimming
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Did you know that these amazing creatures can use tools? They can! Remember how we talked about their stylish homes and keen fashion sense? Octopuses hose discarded items they find, like coconut shells, down with blasts of water from their funnels. Once their loot is all cleaned up, they gather everything in their arms. The pieces become building supplies for a home-away-from-home shelter, a place to sit comfortably, or to scoop up more goodies.

As a true testament to how intelligent octopuses are, they use some tools as defense mechanisms, or even as hunting gear. For example, blanket octopuses attack predators and prey alike by spearing and poisoning their targets. To do so, they wield the toxic tentacle of a Portuguese man o’ war.

Problem-solving Skills

octopus opening container
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

If octopuses could play chess, they would make challenging opponents. Scientists routinely observe how well these cephalopods move through mazes that increase in difficulty. Add the traits of recognizing individuals, patterns, sizes, colors, and shapes to their repertoire of tricks. With exceptional abilities to store and recall information, curious personalities, and the desire to play with objects, octopuses can strategize impressively.

They may not like to hang out together most of the time, but octopuses do learn from each other. It’s not uncommon for scientists to see an octopus use a tool to accomplish a goal after it gains knowledge from a partner. When a food reward is involved, those occurrences happen more often.

Plus, researchers discovered that these cephalopods have something in common with dogs. Canine brains clock in at around 500 million neurons. Between all the neural pathways connecting their brain and appendages, octopuses do too. Who knows what other similarities are yet to be discovered?

Jill Horton
byJill Horton

Jill is a rescue animal advocate and volunteer at Free to Live Animal Sanctuary. Her social media posts contain adoptable dogs and cats from there. Dogs Lucius and Colossus, cats Moses and Maximus, and four parakeets keep her on her toes at home. If you need help finding Jill, check her writing cave. She is likely typing away on her newest article or animal-themed children's book.