Uncovering the secrets of the octopus

Professor Sam Reiter, who leads the Computational Neuroethology Unit, talks neuroscience, cephalopods, and why researching camouflage is important on the latest episode of the OIST podcast.

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What can scientists learn when they investigate the brain activity behind the behavior of living creatures? Take, for example, coleoid cephalopods, a group of marine invertebrates that includes octopus, cuttlefish, and squid, which have some intriguing behaviors. Cuttlefish change their color, shape, and texture in a fraction of a second to blend in with their surroundings. Octopus can solve complex tasks, like opening a bottle, through precise coordination of their eight arms. Squid communicate with each other using changes in skin patterning that they control with their thoughts.

Professor Sam Reiter, who leads the Computational Neuroethology Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST), is studying coleoid cephalopods. He thinks that understanding the underlying neurobiology of these animals, which diverged from the vertebrate line more than 500 million years ago, could uncover truly general principles of animal behavior.  

Science communicator, Lucy Dickie, caught up with him recently to chat about his research and background for an episode of the OIST podcast.


Prof. Sam Reiter talks about cuttlefish, octopus, and the emerging field of neuroethology.

“[Cephalopods are] a group of marine animals that they have a lot of interesting behaviors and interesting brains and I’d like to figure out how they work,” said Prof. Reiter.

“They are the closest we can come to studying an intelligent alien here on Earth. They’re not aliens, we have a common ancestor with them. But that ancestor is so distant from us that it’s like studying another example of intelligent animals that are fundamentally different.”

An octopus shows off its color changing abilities. Video by Keishu Asada.

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