everybody loves cephalopods

by Maggie Koerth-Baker

Everybody loves cephalopods—that class of animals containing octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish. But why? What makes these non-fluffy, non-mammals so appealing?

Last August, I attempted to answer that question in a presentation for a University of New Mexico IGERT symposium. "Those Fabulous Octopus Brains" is a 30-minute speech linking cephalopod neurobiology to cephalopod behavior, and asking what it really means to call a species "intelligent". It'll get you caught up on what we do, and don't, know about cephalopod smarts—and what studying these amazing creatures means for the future of human technology, and our understanding of the human brain.

Don't have time to watch the entire thing? Never fear. Our intrepid editors at Boing Boing Video have put together a highlights reel that will enlighten you in 1/3 of the time.

VIDEO LINKS: Uncut version (30 minutes) / Short version (10 minutes)

(Special thanks to Boing Boing Video editor Eric Mittleman)

52 Responses to “Everybody loves cephalopods”

  1. Fang Xianfu says:

    I believe you mean octopodes! Fnar fnar.

  2. hassenpfeffer says:

    For the record, I am cephalopodophobic. I have nightmares about an octopus with a baleful yellow eye staring at me. Yes, I’ve read my Lovecraft, thankyouverymuch.

    • tad604 says:

      I’m genuinely jealous. I’ve only had one Cthulhu related dream that I can recall.. He was traipsing through downtown San Francisco very God Zilla like, but instead of causing physical collateral damage he was causing psychological damage everywhere. Was a rather intense crazy dream. Wish I had more of them, I’ll just have to content myself with my recurring dreams of the zombie apocalypse.

  3. SamSam says:

    Neat! The camouflage sequence starting at 2:30 was just jaw-dropping. I was sure that it was some silly CGI until it swam away from us. I had to replay that sequence six times. It also reminded me of this video, posted here, of a octopus camouflaging itself in order to surprise and kill a dogfish (starting around 1:15).

    You forgot to mention, though, what it is about their cephalopodic brains that makes them psychic. This would clearly be a more interesting avenue of study.

  4. tuckels says:

    I remember when I was young, spending at least half an hour in front of the cuttlefish tank in an aquarium in Sydney.

  5. lorq says:

    Having watched to the 10-min. video above, I’m very curious to know if anyone is developing ways of testing for a link between the apparently light-sensitive body surface of the cephalopod and its camouflage abilities. Makes a lot of sense, for camouflage purposes, for the body surface of the creature to be able to “see,” even in a primitive way, the light and color qualities of the surface it’s touching. (One imagines those complicated tentacle suckers would do something similar: “taste” the texture of the surface they’re clinging to, in order to generate the right appearance.)

  6. Anonymous says:

    NO NO NO. They are NOT fabulous. They are frightning freaks who would kill each and every one of us given half the chance. They are outworldly. I too hate and fear them. The Japanese have it right. They are not interesting to them. Octupus are LUNCHMEAT.

    • Anonymous says:

      There’s a strange irony in saying something would kill us given the chance, so we should keep eating them. Given the chance, I’d try to kill something that was eating my species, too.

  7. KnittinKttn says:

    Just because they aren’t fluffy in real life, doesn’t mean you can’t *make* them fluffy . . . I just knit one up as a cat toy, and our cats love dragging it around by it’s tentacles. Photo can be found on the Boingboing Flickr group :)

  8. Dorkomatic says:

    I’ve just loast another SANity point.

  9. triscuit says:

    Erm- lovely talk, great summary, but can some one please kill or mute or muffle the techno music that makes oh so much harder to hear what Maggie is saying?

    And, for a giggle- try the cc button translate audio.

  10. freetard says:

    My wife recently won a national award here in Canada for her boardgame design called Octopus’ Garden. It’s being published by Valley Games, and will be on store shelves this Fall. She is a huge fan of all things oceanographic, but cephalopods especially- but for some reason, she still won’t eat them!

    Link to contest info (and where you can enter this year’s contest!).

    Link to her website.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I like it

  12. Wally Ballou says:

    When it comes to squid, I would say that what makes them appealing to me is a nice marinara sauce.

  13. Anonymous says:

    The correct term is octopuses, octopi and octopodes are commonly used, but the right way to say it is “OCTOPUSES”

  14. Anonymous says:

    I have no idea why somebody with capable video editing skill hasn’t made Dramatic Cuttlefish out of this video:


    Start at 1:13 for the dramatic effect.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Absolutely Awesome! I’d never read much about ceph. neurobiology, and this really makes me want to know a lot more.
    Also, too: there’s an absolutely astounding octopus called the “Mimic Octopus” (Malaysia, I think) that makes the octo in this vid look like a rank amateur. Go over to YouTube and search ‘Mimic Octopus’.
    Not you, though, hassenpfeffer. Camo-Cthulu– hmm.

    But could we maybe have a version sans techno sound track??? Really, really distracting.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Why do we love them? TENTACLES!

  17. Anonymous says:

    This thread is incomplete without a link to Dalmation Rex’s awesome Octopus I Love You.


  18. penguinchris says:

    I find touching slimy things repulsive, and the thought of eating them worse. I eat some kinds of fish, but the texture of most seafood (including cephalopods) really turns me off and I can’t do it.

    However, I do find them cute and very appealing. I love to seek them out in aquariums and museums. There’s a great big giant squid in preservative on display at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum; I think there’s one in the Smithsonian as well as I recall. Obviously seeing live ones is better, but giant squid aren’t something you generally can see live :)

    Also, I was enthralled to finally see a real live nautilus at the aquarium at the zoo in Chiang Mai, Thailand. One of the lesser-appreciated but amazingly awesome marine animals, in my opinion.

  19. boomer0127 says:

    OMG Octopi and Squid are sooooooo tasty. Octopus is the best. I don’t think I’ve ever had cuttlefish, but they sound tasty too! I know people complain about eating Octopus because they are so smart, but I like to think that eating smart animals makes me smarter.

  20. Anonymous says:

    “Everybody loves cephalopods”

    Tell that to T-Rex (http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=493)

  21. Amphigorey says:

    There’s something about cephalopods, especially cuttlefish, that links directly to the OMG CUTE center in my brain. It’s exactly the same effect that kittens have.

  22. cramerica says:

    I think you mean CUDDLEfish.

  23. Rose Queen says:

    The commentary is fascinating, but the video portion does the presentation a disservice – long static views of the same slide, stills when only video would actually demonstrate what she’s talking about, etc. I was so turned off that I quit watching the highlights reel at about the 4-minute mark and I can’t imagine even trying the longer version.

  24. Pantograph says:

    I didn’t notice the music, probably because I watched the long version.

    Great presentation, but it didn’t sway me from my belief that cuttlefish are evil incarnate.

  25. Anonymous says:

    I have a giant cuttlefish tattoo on my chest, arm and back =)Check it out: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aumie/4038694519/

  26. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know what everybody else’s deal is, but I know exactly why I love cephalopods.

    When I was younger my dad used to volunteer at the National Aquarium in Baltimore as a diver. When I was 8, he took me “backstage” to see all the fish and science equipment. He let me pet the octopus, which thought it was being fed and started crawling up my arm in an attempt to get my tasty child-sized fingers into its gnashing beak.

    To date, that octopus remains the only animal that has ever tried to eat me. That is why I love them.

  27. Bill Beaty says:

    Octopuseses are *very* lucky that they have fairly short lives.

    If they didn’t, they’d soon be going through training programs for forced labor in submerged factories making shirts and running shoes. Next thing you know, Charlton Heston would be crash landing in the year 2100 and being taken prisoner by an octopode civilization of mankind’s former slaves.

    On the other hand, selective breeding for much higher intelligence might not take long.

    Even now, if you let octopi in the wild get online with waterproof laptops, what websites would they all be visiting? Get some funding, go out to shallows surrounding Greece and Italy, and drop ceramic pots, each containing a terminal and a wifi[*] connection. With a big enough user base, soon we’d see a huge increase in websites designed to attract cephalopod eyeballs.

    [*]blue lasers or MHz ultrasound, duh

  28. Bill Beaty says:

    Then there’s the Cuttlefish Gesture Language.

    Octopi might learn ASL, but humans would be hard pressed to go the other way, even the body mod humans with those electronic variable tattoos run by processors shoved up under their fingernails.

  29. egoVirus says:

    Admiral Akbar was a cephalopod, and he helped destroy the 2nd Death Star. That’s pretty god damn smart if you ask me.

  30. Zadaz says:

    Don’t care how smart, clever, interesting, or what their family lives are, their most outstanding talent is being really great sashimi.

  31. Mister44 says:

    OMG – it’s true! I do love them!

    I should have been a marine biologist.

    I had this book and gave it away – but it as awesome!


  32. doublethink says:

    This is great, and I was really happy to see this on the frontpage today, as my friends and I are 5 days into Octopus week!: our upstart facebook group to rival stupid shark week. Who cares about sharks, Cephalopods should get an entire week of programming dedicated to camouflage and feats of intelligence.

  33. benher says:

    Those endearing phallic tentacles of course!

  34. Anonymous says:

    The long version doesn’t have the annoying music. i guess they figure that if you don’t have an attention span for the information, you’re going to have the need to wiggle about; and it might as well be done to a techno beat.

    better visuals would have been nice; but the fascinating nature of the material kept me riveted enough. Good job!


  35. gwailo_joe says:

    I confess. . .I love them too.

    Especially the underrated nautilus: Straight Up Permian! Real Cephalopods Don’t Die!!

    But I’ll eat them if provoked. . .dried cuttlefish over a charcoal brazier being a favorite.

    But sometimes I like to imagine going on a dive among the Humboldt squids from the deep Pacific: 6 feet long and 100lbs as they swarm in the hundreds and thousands. . .

    I would love them. And they would hail me. And I would be their king.

  36. petitveritas says:

    I enjoyed the sound track on the short video for a while, but seriously, the soundtrack shouldn’t overwhelm the narration. Other than that, nice compilation.

  37. FnordX says:

    Obligatory link to a Darkest of the Hillside Thickets song “Marine Biologist”:


    Architeuthis lean and fast.
    Show us your sublime buccal mass.


  38. Benoisito says:

    I’m just thinking how much every neuroscience lecture I’ve ever been to would benefit from a dubtechno soundtrack.

  39. peltier_cooler says:

    Octopi are cuddly. At least mine is:


    I also have a smaller one from the California Academy of Science (properly known as the Steinhart Acquarium) with a beautiful plush exterior and magnets to stick it on the fridge.

  40. Anonymous says:

    The Israeli she claims in the video as the top Cephalopod brain researcher is incorrect.. Try George Langford, Ted Bullock-U ofC.Adamo and Tublitz and the Japanese Scientist whose name escapes this brain. The Octopus is ranked as an ‘honorary’ in the U.K. animal research and cannot be maimed in a lab due to UK researches findings on it’s sensitivity to pain. When do all animals receive such respect and kindness? When the selfish humans evolve enough stop eating them. Would you eat your cat or dog companion?

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