Cephalopods—octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish—are some of the most intriguing creatures on Earth. They perform fantastic feats of camouflage, boast surprisingly large brains, and can even solve problems. These strange as well as smart creatures offer the best standing example of how truly different and intelligent creatures around the world can be.
“They are charismatic and very smart,” says Dan Distel, director of Northeastern University’s Ocean Genome Legacy Center. “They’re the most intelligent invertebrates, as far as we know.” Distel adds, talking about their intelligence, “One example is that octopuses can solve complex problems. They can unscrew the lid of a jar to get food that’s inside. There is an octopus that uses coconut shells and hides inside of them. They’ve learned to move through mazes to find food. They’re incredible at fitting through very tiny spaces.”
Squids also use color to communicate with one another. Two males display aggression to each other by making their skin white. “Some cephalopods trick the senses of predators in order to hide from them—and they do it in a variety of amazing ways. They can actually make their skin mimic the color, texture, shape, and pattern of their background. They can make themselves look like predators, snakes, or fish”, he explains.
Cephalopods also help researchers study the nervous system. For example, it’s easier to study squid nerve cells because they’re so big and easy to measure. You can put probes all along their length. A lot of the basic chemistry of how a nerve signal is transmitted along the nerve cell was worked out in the giant squid axons since the beginning of neurobiology.
“Other research looks at how squid camouflage themselves and what it can teach us about our own perception. In other words, it’s not just a matter of looking like your background. You’ve got to look like what your predator thinks the background looks like, taking their perception into account. Researchers at Northeastern are using squid skin pigment to make thin films and fibers that could be incorporated into textiles, flexible displays, and future color-changing devices” Distel concludes.