A couple of years ago, I recorded a talk on octopus neurobiology. One of the freakiest things you'll learn, if you watch it, is that an octopus' "brain" isn't really a centralized thing the way ours is. The processing capacity is distributed throughout the animal's body. At io9 today, Annalee Newitz writes about a new study that backs up that idea, demonstrating that disembodied octopus arms react to threats in ways a severed human hand never could. — Maggie
Isaac Krauss's octopus table is a fantastic piece of work -- I want a giant brass octopus for my house!
Then, while taking his first bronze sculpting course, Krauss unearthed the idea and set to work. He admits to having had very little experience working with bronze, but felt that stretching beyond his limits would push him as an artist. The most difficult aspect of this project, according to Krauss, was the detailed suction cups and applying them to the octopuses eight arms. For this, a close friend of his helped him out and also assisted in carrying through with the project till its completion. Overall, it took 1500 hours of work and $5000 to create this marvelous piece of art.
Perhaps you've heard the tale of the octopus that broke out of its tank at the aquarium and walked across the room to break into another tank where it proceeded to eat other forms of sea life.
That story is kind of an urban legend. It's supposedly happened at every aquarium in the world, but can't be confirmed. And experts have told me that the hard floors in an aquarium would likely seriously damage the suction pads of any octopus that tried it.
But the basic idea—that an octopus could pop out of the water and move across dry ground&dmdash;is a very real thing. Here, an octopus at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in California hauls itself out of the water, and scoots awkwardly around on land for a little bit (while some apparently Minnesotan tourists gawk), before sliding back into the water. It's not the most graceful sort of travel. But it can be very handy. Octopuses do this in nature to escape predators, and also to find food of their own in tidal pools.
As an added bonus: Scientific American just started an all-octopuses, all-the-time blog called The Octopus Chronicles. Check it out!
Long story short: Cephalopods don't have their neurons organized in the same way that we vertebrates do. An octopus has as many neurons as a cat, but instead of relying on a central brain, the octopus' neurons are far more scattered. Some are centralized into what we might think of as a "brain"—in this case, a donut-shaped organ that actually wraps around the octopus' esophagus. But the bulk of the neurons are distributed throughout the octopus' body. When the octopus moves, the centralized and decentralized neurons work together, sharing information and the duties of processing and control*.
Researchers like Hochner think that distributed processing system could make for better robots that can do more thinking on their own. Now, his work is paying off. In the video above, you can see the robotic arm produced by an interdisciplinary, team funded by the European Commission, of which Hochner is a part. The 17-inch arm can grasp objects and is the first step in a larger plan to build an entire robot octopus.
I'll say that again, "Robot octopus." Feel free to squeel with delight.
*For the record, this is my guess for why the technically dead squid in that video Xeni posted on Monday still reacted when doused with soy sauce. Squid have distributed neurons, just like octopuses. So some of its "brain" was dead. But the distributed neurons spread throughout its arms were still, apparently, somewhat functional. In the video, I mentioned that one of the scientists I spoke with told me that the humane way to kill an octopus was to kill the whole octopus at once.