Octopi working with tools while Homo sapiens still primitive

OCTOPUSES, as I wrote in my August 24 column, are highly intelligent and learn quickly.

I quoted Dr Sydney Brenner, Nobel laureate and founder of an octopus-genome study in Japan. “They were the first intelligent beings on the planet,” he said.

They have had 400m years in which to develop their brains. Humans are Johnny-Come-Latelys on Earth; the first of our species appeared, at earliest, a mere 10m ago. Homo sapiens, the only surviving human strain, replaced Homo erectus somewhere between 2m and 200,00 years ago.

Most authorities now believe that we absorbed, rather than killed off, Neanderthal man, who left Africa before us and were already settled in Eurasia when Homo sapiens arrived. Some present-day populations have as much as 4% Neanderthal DNA in their blood.

Octopuses were probably already contriving self-protective tools before the thought of tools had entered our primitive brains. Tool-use is, of course, a gauge of cognitive sophistication, and was thought to be confined to mammals and birds.

However, Indonesian and Australian Veined octopuses have recently been filmed carrying coconut shell halves around the sea floor and building them into defensive shelters, even carrying them with them when they move house.

Most favoured are the half shells from coconuts that have been split in two by man, but they also use clam and scallop shells, which would have been available before man appeared.

In Ireland, the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) should be becoming more common as the sea warms. This would be good news. The lesser octopus (Eledone cirrhosa) that populates our local seas is not nearly as tasty. Even after a few weeks spent in the freezer for tenderising, it is still as gastronomically tough and uninteresting as might be rubber soles of sea-softened plimsolls.

I will ask my fishermen friends to look out for any octopuses with two rows of suckers on their tentacles (ie Octopus vulgaris) that might climb into their prawn pots, and to keep them for me.

I noted, last year, that one of the restaurants in La Gomera in the Canary Islands had pulpo celtico on the menu. It was perhaps hoped that this was a more original name for the delicious traditional dish, pulpo gallego, but I was concerned, until I tried it, that it might be our Irish one-suckered molar-challenging friend. Happily, it was the local, two suckered ‘vulgaris’. The error probably arose because Spaniards consider the people of Galicia to be as Celtic as the Irish. The last influx of our ancestors came from Spain and (I imagine) put manners on our robust but less well-travelled Firbolgs.

Years ago, a friend of mine, Colin Barnes, who now runs the best whale-watching trips on the south coast, tried an experiment with octopuses that infested his prawn pots, eating the prawns and then using the pot as a hide to escape predators. He snipped a half inch of the number three (or number four or whatever) tentacle before putting them back in the sea. Sure enough, the next time he pulled the pots, tentacle-snipped occies had prevailed; they had clearly learned the rewards and were the first to jump in for a free breakfast, lunch and dinner once they came upon a cache of potted shrimp.

On the theme of shrimp potting, I was recently told a story by Brian O’Donovan, a prawn fisherman, of strange things observed at sea. (I must, incidentally, apologise to Billy Barrett for adding 20 years to his age in my recent column about sunfish, saying he had 57 years fishing experience, not 27, which would have been nearer the mark. Bad hearing and telephone lines were to blame.)

Brian saw a rat aboard his trawler as he and his brother headed out to sea. Rats come aboard working boats at fishing docks everywhere, but cannot be allowed to stay and breed.

So, Brian, with a view of dispatching it, chased it and hunted it to the foredeck, where it ran along the rail, lost its footing and fell into the drink. It was just striking out for shore, half of 1km away, when out of the sky came the Shadow of Death in the form of a great black-back gull. It seized the squirming creature, lifted it aloft and swallowed it on the wing.

I’ve seen our heron swallow a rat, and I image the gull was just as efficient.


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