Octopuses at Work and Play: Jennifer Mather and Cephalopod Cognition. (Women in Science 76)

On paper, the octopus looks like a mythical beast we made up by combining all of the most outlandish bits from our favorite fictional characters.  It has multiple hearts, like Doctor Who, sophisticated camouflage capacities like the Predator, jet propulsion like Iron Man, the ability to regrow limbs like Madame Rouge, copper-based blood like Mr. Spock, adaptable hunting strategies like Kraven, the ability to shoot acid like Alien, inject paralyzing venom like Viper, and throw out a senses-numbing ink cloud like a deadly ninja.  And all of those attributes are housed in an eight-armed structure with independently articulated suckers that have both fine motor grasping capability (enough to untie surgical stitching) and sufficient power to pull apart a clam.

There is nothing on an octopus that isn’t awesome and deeply mysterious.  And yet, as a member of the molluscan phylum, it is an invertebrate, and therefore classified in many countries (including the United States) as “Tissue,” a category of life that allows anybody to do basically whatever they want to it.  There is a yawning gap between our growing body of knowledge about the advanced intelligence of cephalopods and the ethical regulations regarding their treatment.  Cephalopod cognition, therefore, is a matter to be studied not only because it is fascinating on every level, but because every discovery about octopus play or squid visual communication gets us that much closer to a sensible and ethical policy of handling these perplexing creatures.  And few people have been so powerfully at the forefront of both invertebrate ethics and cephalopod cognitive research as University of Lethbridge professor Jennifer Mather.

She was born in Victoria, B.C. and spent her childhood near the coast, where she could ramble the shores looking for shells and thinking about the marine animals living their lives beyond the crashing surf.  Her mother had a degree in bacteriology, and her father one in economics, and both encouraged her to follow her interests, even as being a girl science nerd at school in the 1950s kept her from the social interactions the “popular” kids enjoyed.

University studies, she anticipated, would be a different world, one where, “It was considered respectable to want to think,” and she attended the University of British Columbia, receiving her Bachelor’s in Biology in 1964.  From there, she wanted to get involved with environmental conservation, but was told by the program’s director that women weren’t accepted.  Taking a break from her studies to get married and have two children, she went on to get her Master’s from Florida State University in 1972, also in Biology, while her husband got his PhD in education, while they were raising a three and four year old.

I know, seeming madness, but it worked.  Her advising professor at the time was a crustacean expert, and encouraged her to find somebody doing octopus research for her doctorate.  That took Mather and her husband to Boston, where she unfortunately worked with a Brandeis professor notorious for having difficulty working with PhD candidates.  He kicked her out of his lab, but she stuck with the university and took up a position studying the sensory-motor coordination of eye movements, for which she received her doctorate in 1978.

In the 1980s, she began her pioneering research on cephalopods while still carrying out her eye coordination studies.  The road to research is a long one for anybody, but for women in the 1960s, the difficulties were many.  For every Eugenie Clark, gaining international acclaim for marine research, there were many women in biology made so unwelcome that their options were either drudging doggedly on in an antagonistic lab, dropping out of science altogether, or working in the labs of their husbands for substantially reduced salaries and without official recognition (recall the case of Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who had to claw her bits of research from the peripheral spaces allowed her by her husband’s employers).

Returning to Canada after her doctorate, Mather began her observations of octopus foraging strategies and spatial memory.  She uncovered that octopuses follow a logical and intelligent procedure for obtaining food.  An octopus inhabiting a den will head out in a direction, gather what easy prey it can find, and then return to its den for protection.  The next day, it will pick a new direction, remembering the paths it has previously chosen and avoiding them as likely to be depleted of easy food sources.  Once it has finished its multi day sweep of the surroundings, it moves on to a new den and repeats the procedure.  This strategy takes advanced spatial memory (to find its way back), as well as the ability to remember paths previously taken, and enough intelligence to avoid taking a path that has already been exhausted of easy pickings.

In the Nineties, then, while the rest of us were wearing flannel and waiting half an hour to get an e-mail over dial-up, she was investigating the effect that predation has on an octopus’s foraging strategies.  In general, the octopus’s arsenal of tricks for avoiding getting eaten is astounding.  Its lack of a skeleton allows it to scrunch into unfathomably tight spaces that most predators can’t hope to enter.  So, for the most part, a predator has to wait until the octopus is out foraging to grab it.  Even then, however, the predator has to find the octopus first, which is not an easy task given the octopus’s ability to change both the color and texture of its skin to match its surroundings.


Supposing that somehow the predator finds an octopus in spite of its camouflage, say by tracking its chemical scent, the octopus has a more active bag of tricks at its disposal.  It can squirt out semi-solid ink patterns that contain chemicals which deaden the predator’s sense of smell, then dart using its jet propulsion to the ocean floor and blend in seamlessly with its environment again.  At that point, a predator would be entirely forgiven for just saying,  “Ummm…  Forget this noise, I’m going to find a fish or a crab or something that doesn’t have stealth technology and ink bombs built in…”

It has been Mather’s work in this century with the Seattle Aquarium’s Roland Anderson, however, that has truly changed how we view the intelligence of the cephalopods.  Together, they have probed the limits of the octopus’s problem solving techniques and quirky individuality.  They found that octopuses can remember human faces, and adjust their behavior according to whether they like that particular human or not.  They also have a sense of play, batting about empty bottles repetitively for no clear reason until they get bored with the game they’ve made up and move on to other things.  They are champions of discerning different objects, and experts at manipulating puzzles to get at treats.

What’s more, they have distinct personalities that can be rated on a scale of attributes that are like the octopus equivalent of those ENFP tests your shut-in uncle is always sharing with you on Facebook.  Octopuses can be shy or social, confrontational or not, along a complicated spectrum.  Mather and Anderson have, by investigating the octopus’s capacity for individuality instead of relying on personality-flattening statistical averages, opened the door to a new conception of cephalopods as creatures with unique personalities that make them far more than the Tissue which United States law categorizes them as.

Help support this column!  Buy the book!
Help support this column! Buy the book!

Mather has dedicated herself to improving the lot of the octopus by writing papers about invertebrate ethics and advising European countries on their invertebrate policies.  Her advocacy, combined with the protective measures established individually in England, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, culminated in EU Directive 2010/63/EU, which included protection for cephalopods in its regulations for how lab animals may be kept and treated throughout Europe. Canada, where Mather continues to carry out her research,  has had protections for cephalopods on the books since the turn of the century, but the United States has yet to follow suit, and so her work continues, lecturing at Lab Animal Research gatherings about octopus intelligence and the need for humane legislation in their favor.

And let us not forget that the research goes on too.  Mather’s future lines of research involve the mechanics of how cephalopods harness hydrostatics to move their limbs, mirror studies of octopuses, and continued investigation of diversity among cephalopod personality types.  Then, because obviously working for the ethical treatment of an entire phylum while carrying out research on multiple aspects of an intellectually complicated organism isn’t enough, she devotes time to advocating for women in science, serving on the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ Status of Women Committee in order to ensure that women scientists of the coming generation don’t face the same long road that she and so many others experienced (and are experiencing).

At the end of the day, if you’re an invertebrate reading this, you have her to thank for unveiling enough of your complexities to get you treated as a living, feeling being (oh, and congratulations on the whole Reading English thing – we knew you had it in you).  And if you’re a human reading this, you have her to thank for elevating the scientific profession morally and ethically.  Invertebrates and vertebrates don’t classically agree on much, but I imagine they can both get behind this proposition:

Jennifer Mather, she’s pretty great.


FURTHER READING:  Mather’s book, Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate (2010), co-written with Roland Anderson and James Wood, is a non-stop cavalcade of impossibly cool things.  In this article I didn’t even have time to touch on octopus reproduction, senescence, the details of camouflage, hunting strategies, or the neural system that runs the octopus’s arms without necessarily consulting the brain, but everything about them is fascinating and in the book.  Mather also recommends Sy Montgomery’s The Octopus Researchers, Birdology, and The Soul of the Octopus, Bernard Heinrich’s Mind of the Raven and Diana Reiss’s The Dolphin in the Mirror as great books for anybody interested in animal behavior.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Check Also
Back to top button