Watch: Sneaky Octopus Dismantles Camera

A sneaky octopus tried to literally steal the show when he recently took apart a camera off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. 

Joe Kistel, an underwater videographer for the marine-conservation nonprofit TISIRI, was filming at an artificial reef on July 6 when he came across the inquisitive invertebrate, which other divers had previously encountered.

As Kistel filmed, the octopus reached for the camera, and then he noticed something in one of its arms: a gasket from the camera’s housing.

“I was completely surprised when he started to dismantle the camera,” Kistel said.

Kistel ended up playing tug-of-war with the octopus to retrieve the valuable camera part. “I think he was just curious,” Kistel said. “He saw something different and thought he would take it.”

Such behavior isn’t out of the ordinary for octopuses, among the most clever—and mischievous—of the invertebrates. (Related: “Journey of Octopus Discovery Reveals Them to Be Playful, Curious, Smart.”)

We talked to James Wood, a marine biologist and webmaster of the Cephalopod Page, an online resource about octopuses and their relatives, about these fascinating creatures.

What can you tell about the octopus’s behavior in this video?

As a scientist, I can’t say what the animal is thinking or intending to do. Because octopuses are so different from us, we have to use extra caution in reading into their intent.

However, they are curious animals and that looks like curiosity to me. They will come out of their dens to investigate novel items. (Watch a video of an octopus escaping.)

What is the brain of an octopus like?

Their brains have distinct lobes, or areas of specialization, which is unusual for an invertebrate. Their brain to body weight ratio is higher than that of some vertebrate groups, like fish and reptiles.

What’s most unusual is that two-thirds of their nerves are not in their brains, but distributed throughout their arms. It’s sort of a hybrid between a centralized nervous system, like we have, and a distributed network, like the Internet. Octopuses are wired completely differently than us. (See “Why Octopus Arms Don’t Get Tangled.”)

It’s like every sucker you see grabbing on to that camera has its own “mini-brain,” and there are hundreds of suckers on each arm. Octopuses probably process a lot of information in their arms. If an octopus loses an arm, the severed limb can still crawl and change color and the suckers can still hold on to things.

How intelligent are octopuses?

Intelligence is hard to define, even in humans. If an octopus made an IQ test for a human, it might have questions like, “How many different colors can your severed arm produce in a second?” That’s an intelligence-based skill that’s relevant to its survival that we don’t do.

Octopuses certainly learn very quickly in captivity. They pick up tests like mazes much like a rat or mouse does. They also learn who feeds them and when pretty rapidly. I worked with one octopus that would squirt you in the face with a perfectly aimed, direct jet of water if you were at all late in feeding it. You had to feed that one first or you’d get hosed.

There are great octopus stories, and they sound like urban myths, but there’s truth to a lot of them.

I worked with one octopus that went to a local aquarium. One day, they found it in the lobster tank, and the lobster was gone. The octopus had escaped from its enclosure overnight and made its way into the other tank to eat the lobster. (See “Curious Octopus Floods Aquarium.”)

The aquarium staff returned the octopus to its home tank and made the tank more secure, but it kept escaping and making its way into other exhibits and eating other animals. Eventually, it appeared that the octopus made one final escape—it pulled out a 6-inch-long (15 centimeters) plastic drainpipe through which ocean water was pumped into and out of the tanks, and found its way back to the ocean.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Mary Bates is a freelance science writer living in Boston. She has a PhD in psychology from Brown University where she studied bat echolocation. You can visit her website at www.marybateswriter.com and follow her on Twitter at @mebwriter.