Thinking With Tentacles

Mad Penguins & Whale Accents
in the Court of the Octopus King

Research into the natural world has been a reliable way of gauging our walk on this planet, and where we’re probably heading to. But a new approach, devoid of any rancid anthropomorphism, has offered fresh insights into animal intelligence. The results are remarkable.
Heard the one about whales with a Caribbean accent? Or penguins having sex parties wilder than drunken priests? But no one was ready to witness an octopus opening a jar from inside, or sneaking out at night to feed on crabs nearby, before returning to its tank. Who’s observing whom here?
What these and other animals prove is that cognitive ability is not a human monopoly. In fact, whenever the need to compare them with us is subtracted from the equation, crows, cephalopods, and pigeons, to name a few, can outsmart a thinking bloke often in a radical way.
Evolution has proposed alternatives to some species so far from our own, that they could be almost E.T.s raised in Pluto for all we know. Since we no longer equate physiology with identity, it’d be better get acquainted with mental prowess that owes nothing to rationality.
Not that we’re even that rational, or have the natural gift of logic. Far from it. But elephants have always cried of sadness, and chickens do side up with individuals in danger. We were just too busy turning animals into slaves that we oftentimes eat too to pay any attention.

Let’s get this out of the way: penguins are not humans, thus morality is not an issue, even if a colony, in the distance, looks like a black-tie cocktail party. And for belting out loud, the Adélies have nothing on the singing lady Adele. But when it comes to parties, theirs do get wild.
During Capt. Scott‘s second, and doomed, trip to Antarctica, between 1910-13, George Murray Levick wrote of widespread necrophilia, males sexually coercing young chicks, before killing them, and shock, having sex with other males. To him, it was “depravity,” and his notes (in Ancient Greek, to harden access to them) went missing.
Till now: they’ve been uncovered and bad “science” journalism have ensued, of course. But five years ago, the biggest Adélie news had nothing to do with sex. In Feb 2016, it was reported that 150,000 penguins had died, landlocked by the fracture of a giant iceberg.
But that was a hoax, better researched stories confirmed. Neither sex fiends nor massacred by climate change, yet, penguins are just, once again, being victims of bad reporting. Why we care has nothing to do with humanity either: they just look like us. We’re already changing their history. Time to tell their stories way better, too.

Since at least the 1970s, news about whales is always surprising, even as their numbers keeping receding towards extinction. The size of their brains, rich social lives, their songs, complex and uniquely identified with their pods. And then there’s the loneliest of them all.
The fact that research into these massive but elusive species has reached such a level of sophistication is, in itself, (more)
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astounding. Thus, a Royal Society study has detected unique patterns in the way Caribbean sperm whales call each other across the waves. That’s right, they’ve got accents.
Whales communicate with a series of clicks, in segments called coda. Like people, how they sound is unique to a specific region and social group. Put together, not even computers can tell individual whales apart, proving that the whole clan learned exactly the same coda.
Outstanding? There’s more: the same study has also confirmed that whales, as T.S. Eliot once realized about cats, have names known only among themselves. And probably for some of us too. But no, please, we don’t wish for ‘Whales, a Broadway Musical’ any time soon. One does wonder, though: like actors, can they also fake accents?

Escape artist. King of disguise. Shrewd problem solver. Only a few species deserve such a wide range of superlatives, but the octopus also adds stunning beauty to the mix. The more we learn, the deeper our sense of wonder and puzzlement about them. As with whales, divers have wondered if they are really staring back at them.
A quick search on the Internet produces an unsettling collection of videos that only confirms what a character in Michael Crichton‘s Sphere says at some point: an octopus is so smart that the biggest limitation to its behavior is its lifespan.” After all, three years is not enough to build something as complicated as a culture, or conquer the world.
A few years ago, Inky, an octopus who lived at the National Aquarium of New Zealand, shocked the world by squeezing itself through a gap on his tank, dashing across eight feet of floor, and slipping through a drainpipe towards Hawke’s Bay, never to be seen again.
It’s the kind of daring exit legends are made of, but not an isolated incident as far as octopuses are concerned. Much less cinematographic but way more relevant is the study of its tentacles, which seem to act as extensions of their eyes and brains. Which, by the way, hold only a third of their neurons. Think about it, their arms can talk back to them.

That means that a big part of Inky’s decision to escape to his own idea of paradise, er Octopus Garden, may have taken place in his extremely powerful limbs. Such combo of sheer strength and ability to think outside, well, their brain box, is truly something out of this world to us.
In another footage, an octopus carries two halves of a coconut, which they can easily crush with their bone-made beak, across the ocean floor. At times, it stops and gets inside them. Its tryouts and the quick pace it moves shows there’s a purpose behind its actions, shown later on the video: protection, shelter, camouflage.
Whether we’re reading too much on these scenes, or if it turns out that we’re way off, it’s all part of our quest to understanding these marvels. Through them we envision an entire new world, or rather, universe opening up to us. Almost as if discovering another civilization living side by side with ours. And an alien one, at that.
A documentary on them out now has been a hit just like The Beatles song has been for years. It’d be quite disconcerting though if after all, deep down animals don’t really find us that interesting.

(*) Originally published on April 28, 2016.

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