5 min read

Cephalopods: The Sea's Most Fascinatingly Sensitive Creatures

A new book called Cephalopod Cognition, edited by researchers Anne-Sophie Darmaillacq, Ludovic Dickel, and Jennifer Mather, recently landed in my mailbox. This group of invertebrates, consisting of 700 species that include highly evolved organisms with elaborate sense organs and big brains such as cuttlefishes, squids, octopods, and the chambered nautilus, demonstrate a wide array of fascinating and complex behavior patterns. The table of contents and other information can be found here and this book's description is an accurate summary of what readers will find between the covers:

Cephalopods are generally regarded as the most intelligent group among the invertebrates. Despite their popularity, relatively little is known about the range and function of their cognitive abilities. This book fills that gap, accentuating the varied and fascinating aspects of cognition across the group. Starting with the brain, learning and memory, Part I looks at early learning, memory acquisition and cognitive development in modern cephalopods. An analysis of the chambered nautilus, a living fossil, is included, providing insight into the evolution of behavioural complexity. Part II surveys environmental responses, especially within the active and learning-dependent coleoids. The ever-intriguing camouflage abilities of octopus and cuttlefish are highlighted, alongside bioluminescence, navigation and other aspects of visual and cognitive competence. Covering the range of cognitive function, this text underscores the importance of the cephalopods within the field of comparative cognition generally. It will be highly valuable for researchers, graduates and senior undergraduate students.

Brainy creatures and sensitive beings who deserve protection

The ten highly referenced chapters vary in writing style and detail and one can pick and choose what to read. As the editors note, cephalopods are often called "brainy creatures" and, indeed, based on their sensitivity, they are protected from various forms of invasive research. They show remarkable learning capacities about prey preferences and prey generalization, and prenatal experience can shape postnatal behavior. Cuttlefish embryos, for example, "can collect visual information concerning prey and predators and use it after hatching." Furthermore, we learn that who some call the "two-brained" octopus (Chapter 5) seem to engage in exploration and object play, have different personalities, demonstrate complex foraging strategies, show dynamic forms of camouflage, and have "simple forms of consciousness." The last essay in this book notes that we know very little about 95 percent of extant cephalopods and that fieldwork on these animals requires a lot of "luck and patience." I so look forward to an expanded database on these remarkable beings. (For an interesting essay on octopuses as "ecosystem engineers" please click here.)

I really learned a lot from reading through this book and highly recommend it. It will serve as a most valuable reference book for years to come. Many readers will be very surprised by the cognitive skills shown by these brainy invertebrates and these data serve as a reminder that we need to keep our heads and hearts open about the amazing animals with whom we are most fortunate to share our wondrous planet.