An octopus at New Zealand’s National Aquarium decided he’s had enough of life in captivity and deftly devised his own escape to the sea. His amazing getaway won Inky the octopus instant fame, and raises new questions about cephalopod intelligence.
In 2014, biologists rescued Inky from a crayfish pot where he had become entangled, suffering injuries to his arms and body. Kerry Hewitt, curator of aquarium exhibits, said at the time that the creature was adapting to life in his new tank, but added that staff had to work to keep him amused as he had tendencies towards boredom. Obviously he used his idle time to do some thinking.
Three months ago, the octopus secretly slipped out through a gap left by maintenance workers at the top of his tank, crawled across the floor, and escaped down a six-inch wide drain pipe that led to the Pacific ocean. Staffers said they pieced together the mystery via telltale suction cup prints that recorded his escape route. The story just went public this week, casting Inky as a global celebrity with animal lovers cheering on his victorious return to nature.
Octopuses are not fish, although they breathe through gills. There are over 300 species which inhabit the world’s tropical seas. Classified as mollusks, they are cousins of other slimy, muscular sea life such as squid, slugs, snails, and shellfish. Aquarium manager Rob Yarrall told the New Zealand website Stuff that octopuses as very malleable, pointing out that Inky had to squeeze his soccer-ball sized torso through the small opening to get free.
But are they “smart’? They can famously change colors, squirt out an inky poison, and exert a force greater than their own body weight. Although they lack backbones, cephalods do have inordinately large “brains”. Tests show
that the animals can navigate mazes, quickly solve problems (and remember the solutions!). Other experiments show that octopuses lack exact knowledge about the position of their arms, raising an intriguing question: how do octopuses avoid tying themselves up in knots? (See how scientists at Hebrew University answered this – link here).
This isn’t the first time a captive octopus made a jailbreak. In 2009 at California’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium a pair of octopuses deconstructed a water recycling valve and redirected a hose which shot water overnight from their tank, causing a massive flood, and concealing their absence from frantic aquarium workers.
“[Octopuses] are very strong, and it is practically impossible to keep an octopus in a tank unless you are very lucky. … Octopuses simply take things apart,” octopus expert Jennifer Maher told The Washington Post, “I recall reading about someone who had built a robot submarine to putter around in a large aquarium tank. The octopus got a hold of it and took it apart piece by piece.”
She added, “There’s a famous story from the Brighton Aquarium in England 100 years ago that an octopus there got out of its tank at night when no one was watching, went to the tank next door and ate one of the lumpfish and went back to his own tank and was sitting there the next morning.”
The New Zealan National Aquarium has no plans to replace Inky, but it will better secure the tank where his former roommate remains. “They are always exploring and they are great escape artists,” Yarrall told Hawke’s Bay Today. “We’ll be watching the other one.”