It’s never good to broadly stereotype a large segment of a population. But it probably would be fair to hold in low regard the intelligence of most mollusks.
How smart, after all, is a clam?
But there is a class of animals within the mollusk phylum that demonstrates the ability to reason. They are the cephalopods (SEFF-a-lo-pods) – the octopus, the squid and the cuttlefish.
In The Maritime Aquarium, the giant Pacific octopus on exhibit seems to enjoy being given puzzles and toys, especially when there is food within. Each day, the aquarists offer the female octopus “enrichments” – things that keep her busy by allowing her to utilize some of the skills that octopi have developed for survival.
Sometimes the enrichments merely are unfamiliar objects that the octopus can feel and explore. Items with different textures, such as Legos® and infant toys that snap together, seem to be especially interesting. You’ll see the octopus using her many arms to investigate all the corners, holes and edges.
And other times, the item will have a tasty prize inside – usually a piece of fish or a crab. These might be a big pretzel jar or PVC pipe with a lid that must be unscrewed. Or a Mr. Potato Head® doll that must have its back end opened to give up its reward. The aquarists also have used the popular Kong® dog toys, which can hold treats.
Like a child who likes the box that a toy came in as much as the toy, the octopus still finds Mr. Potato Head worthy of close examination, long after the treat has been consumed.
So does that mean octopi are smart? Well, “smart” is a relative term. But they definitely seem to be able to retain and use information. Their brains are smaller and very different than ours, but – by invertebrate standards – they’re large and have an area capable of memory storage.
During your Maritime Aquarium visits, be sure to see if the octopus is busy with an “enrichment.” (And look for "enrichments" in the river otter and meerkats exhibits too.)