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An alien intelligence shares our world with us. Descended from the cephalopods of the Cambrian period, octopuses do not share an evolutionary history of intelligence with us. But make no mistake, they are intelligent.

In a paper published the other day in Current Biology, biologists describe Indonesian veined octopuses who carry coconut shells with them and make shelters with the shells. This is not the equivalent of hermit crabs, who instinctively use discarded shells; the octopuses appear almost comical as they awkwardly remove mud from the shells and stack them - it is clearly not a behavior they are designed for.

(More after the fold.)

The only benefit to the octopus's ungainly maneuver is to use the shells later as a shelter or lair, and that's what makes it wholly different from a hermit crab using the discarded shell of a snail.

"There is a fundamental difference between picking up a nearby object and putting it over your head as protection versus collecting, arranging, transporting (awkwardly), and assembling portable armor as required," said Mark Norman of the Museum Victoria in Australia.

Of course, cephalopod intelligence is something scientists have become increasingly interested in over the years. Octopuses are known to be able to solve puzzles, and even figure out how to raid neighboring aquariums for food in marine parks.

Octopus intelligence is unlike human intelligence - they live short lives, so don't have long in which to develop their mental acuity. They are not generally social, so are not learning these skills from each other, as humans do.

What is astonishing about this ability is how ancient cephalopod intelligence may be. Cone shelled octopus like creatures became the first active intelligent predators in the Ordovician. Modern squid carry the remnants of this cone shell inside their heads, the cuttlebone (it has evolved out of octopi completely, but fossil octopi sometimes have it.) Although the most primitive modern cephalopods (Nautiloids) are less sophisticated than octopii, they still have significant mental abilities, such as the ability to remember things for longish periods of time.

Octopuses of a more or less modern form first appear in the fossil record 95 million years ago.

Consider that, for a moment. An animal intelligent enough to use tools, swimming our planet in the middle of the Cretaceous. Astonishing, when you think that our ancestors of that time were not yet even as sophisticated as rats or lemurs.

Originally posted to Bobs Telecaster on Mon Dec 14, 2009 at 05:46 PM PST.

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