The ability of a mimic octopus to disguise itself as another animal, such as a sea snake, lion fish, or sole fish, is truly incredible. Unfortunately, it will probably be a very long time before scientists understand how the mimic octopus knows how to do this! This is because the octopus' intelligence and physical capabilities are both very complex and difficult to figure out. However, by looking at some other examples of octopus behavior and animal learning we can try to make some guesses.
When looking at animal behavior the first question that must be asked is whether the behavior appears to be instinctive or learned. An instinctive behavior is one that the animal is born with-- it just knows the behavior without needing any experience first, or without needing even to think about it. For example, when a baby is first born it knows how to breathe, cry, and nurse already from the first moment, so these behaviors are very much instinctive. Another example is how baby birds open their mouths when the mother comes to the nest, so that she will give them food. In contrast learned behaviors are ones which the animal does not automatically know, but rather learns over time. In humans, the ability to paint, play the piano, write, and tie one's shoes are just a few good examples. For another example a bird, such as a raven, may learn through observation or experience how to take a walnut very high and drop it on the asphalt to break it open.
Unfortunately most behaviors are not so simple to classify as "instinctive" or "learned", because the truth is that there are different levels of instinct and learning. Actually, many behaviors may be part instinct and part learned. For example everybody instinctively knows how to cry, but as we get older we might start to cry for different reasons, and we also learn how to control our crying (some people even learn to use crying as a way to get what they want from other people!).
Another example in humans is learning how to talk. Can you remember learning how to talk? Did anybody ever teach you, or do you remember having to think about it and figure out? Of course not, somehow you just "knew" how to talk one day, and you got better at it over time. But even though you weren't actively thinking about it, you did have to learn how to talk! Scientists have figured out that part of the reason you learn to talk without realizing it, in a very natural way, is that speech is partly instinctive and partly learned. When you are first born you do not have any knowledge about talking. But soon, as a very little child, your brain becomes naturally very receptive to learning speech: you instinctively become very attentive to it, and your brain is automatically very eager to learn how to talk. This period lasts for a few years, during which you just absorb the ability to speak! This is why it was so easy for you to learn, because it was part instinctive-- but only during those first few years of life! This is different from purely learned techniques, which you must really work at to develop.
The issue becomes even more complicated when you think about the different ways of learning. In addition to considering whether a behavior is entirely instinctual, entirely learned, or a combination of the two, you must also think about how learned behaviors are acquired. An animal may learn a behavior by watching others do it and copying that, or it may actually be taught the behavior by another animal. It is also possible that an animal can learn something it didn't see or hear from anything else, but instead figured it out all on its own!
Octopuses are likely to fall into all of these different categories, since they are very smart animals. Certainly many octopus behaviors are instinctive, just as all animals exhibit instinctive behaviors. I'm sure nobody ever had to show an octopus how to swim, for example. Octopi are also able to think about and learn things all on their own: many have figured out how to unscrew the lid off a jar to get at some food inside, for example. And of course octopuses can also learn by watching the behaviors of others. Given that octopuses are capable of all of these, which is the most likely for the ability of the mimic octopus to copy other animals?
While we don't know the answer for sure, we can use some clues to make a good guess. First, scientists have observed that mimic octopuses only disguise themselves as dangerous animals that sharks and other predators wouldn't want to eat. This suggests that the mimic octopus doesn't really learn this all on its own, because how would the octopus know to only mimic the dangerous animals? Unless the octopus is so smart that it can tell which animals a predator wouldn't want to eat, which seems unlikely (actually, how does the shark itself know which animals are dangerous and which are good to eat? That is a whole other difficult question!). After all, one day
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