Hi, I'm Ben Hazell. I used to blog here about the media, but now I work there I don't write here anymore.
I'm the Web Publishing Editor at - I find better ways to tell stories, developing tools, training and practice for journalists.

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Rarely updated now, used during Journalism MA at the University of Sheffield.

How a bored Octopus basically won at the Internet, and a little bit of Cuttlefish sign language

Friday, 31 October 2008
Sometimes if I like a story I see in the newspaper, I throw it up on Reddit, to share it with other witty, intelligent beings. This afternoon I enjoyed a story about an Octopus called Otto, so I shared it in a few places with a new headline:

Bored Octopus shoots out lights, then trashes aquarium and juggles crabs

As I approach my 2,000th vote of confidence, I'd like to thank the Internet for electing me Halloween winner. Otto, I couldn't have done it without you.

Some reactions from the fans:
tmiltznc "This is the best damn title ever on reddit for me :-)"
mizaya "This is my favorite Reddit submission ever."
HeywoodFloyd "The story itself cannot possibly be as awesome at the title so I won't even other reading it."
Maxxover "One of the best stories here, ever."
tempyra "The coolest thing I've read involving an animal all week (cat photos don't count)."
cruise02 "That might be the best headline I've ever seen on reddit."

But also some fascinating things about Octopi - because we all love animal facts.
They are actually shockingly clever animals, but sadly their learning is limited by their very short life spans. People have been popping up on the comments with all kinds of anecdotes and warnings about the intelligent octopus threat. I've copied a few of the best across here.

Saydrah - "I was 13 and on a school trip to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. Each kid in the class had been assigned a sea critter to study, and mine was the Cuttlefish [closely related to Octopi - Ben]. I realized while writing my report that in almost every photo of a cuttlefish where it was clear that it could see the person taking the photo, it held its tentacles like this:
I was also learning some sign language at the time, and it clicked: It's a greeting. At least, that was my theory, and as soon as I got to the aquarium I sought out the cuttlefish to test it.

There were 16 cuttlefish in the tank. I asked a staff member about them, and she said, "I know we put 16 in there, but they blend in so well we haven't seen more than 6 at a time since then. There haven't been any bodies, so I presume there are still 16."

At first I could spot two, camouflaged on rocks. I went up to the tank, knelt down, and held my fingers in the greeting pose from the photos. Incidentally, cuttlefish have 10 tentacles, two of which are set back and only shoot out to grab prey. Much like 10 fingers with two set back thumbs. It's easy to make your hands into a recognizably cuttlefish like shape.

With 10 minutes, I had 13 cuttlefish lined up at the front of the tank doing the greeting pose back at me. My teacher got all this on video, and a couple staff members came over and were floored at the sight. They started doing the sign language at the cuttlefish too, and the cuttlefish responded to them also. Some of them also changed color, which obviously I couldn't mimic, and made different tentacle poses, which I tried to repeat back to them.

After a couple minutes, one smallish cuttlefish turned red, grabbed a shrimp that was in the tank as a snack for the cuttles, and pushed the shrimp up against the glass in front of my hands. It seemed to be offering it to me. Then a larger cuttlefish turned white, grabbed the shrimp from the smaller one, and the big cuttlefish then repeated the effort to push it through the glass to me! The small cuttlefish turned gravel patterned, shot a jet of water out, and went to hide behind a tank decoration.

That was the high point-- I kept talking with them for about an hour, and I did manage to identify what I think were a few other specific signs. I do think the one I originally used was in fact a greeting, since they returned the same sign to me and to each other. There was also a pose that I think is a threat, because they did it to each other and then one (the submissive/weaker one?) would move away and sometimes change color. If I did that pose, they would either return it to me and have a standoff of sorts, or would move away from the glass. There also seemed to be a friendship/relaxation type of sign, because after a while of holding the greeting pose, a few of them shifted into another pose but didn't change color or move away."

So they can use tools, control their environment, and we can communicate with them. Nice - That's really A-List stuff for animals.

AlejandroTheGreat "Someone needs to lobby for a law forbidding researchers from letting an octopus occupy the same room as a crow, if the crows taught the octopuses how to use tools we're doomed."

ibisum "I love octopus. They are just the coolest creatures. Once, when I was snorkelling in my homeland (down under) I happened to notice this sort of 'lazy bit of weed' sprouting, unusually, out of a hole .. with the hollowed out head of a cray fish attached to it. As my eye is usually tuned to such things (never once paid for fishing tackle in my life, courtesy of all the stuff I've collected off the reefs), I decided to get a closer look and, of course, it turned out to be an octopus - FISHING!
You see, he was just sitting in his hole, lazily dangling an arm out of it, using the crayfish to attract small whiting and other fish stupids to his lair .. as soon as they'd come in for a quick feed - BANG! - out he'd shoot, grab 'em, and into his hole he'd go. I watched him fishing like that for about an hour, and it was truly awesome.. the way that little arm swung around in the current, just lolling about with his craftily deployed crayfish head. Brilliant little buggers."

trevdak2 "Octopi are really quite brilliant creatures. They have a grasp of tool use that almost rivals chimps and are very creative, adventurous, and learn quickly.
I have a friend whose mom is a marine biologist. She goes out on crabbing boats, and has a great story of octopi boarding the boat, opening the freezer, and stealing caught crabs for themselves."

crusoe "I for one welcome our new octopus overlords!"

Final thought for the day:
tehxaton "Otto would have been a better pick for VP than Palin."


Anonymous said...

Hi there,

Where is the video that your teacher shoot with the cutterfish doing the so-called sign language? I want to see them, please.

Robert L. Mason (RLM)

Anonymous said...

Hello, I would also be eager to see the video about communicating through sign language with the cuttlefish, they are, in fact my favorite animal and I'm not at all surprised that they communicate in such a way. It was a very clever thing to experiment with. Thanks for this post!

Frances Davidson

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