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Octopuses can learn from an iPad too

Reference: Kawashima, S., Takei, K., Yoshikawa, S., Yasumuro, H., & Ikeda, Y. (2020). Tropical Octopus Abdopus aculeatus Can Learn to Recognize Real and Virtual Symbolic Objects. The Biological Bulletin, 238(1), 000-000.

Octopuses are smart critters! From Paul the Octopus who predicted World Cup champions to viral cephalopod escape artists, these many-armed molluscs never cease to amaze us with their skills and brainpower. Now, scientists think that octopuses are smart enough to recognize familiar objects on a screen.

Tropical octopuses A. aculeatus live in warm coastal waters, where they have to navigate among reefs, rocks, and underwater forests. Image source: Wikimedia Creative Commons

A research team at the University of Ryukyus, Japan, studied the tropical octopus Abdopus aculeatus, which lives in tropical archipelagic waters near Japan’s coast. The researchers hypothesized that, because A. aculeatus need to remember the way to their dens and food sources in this naturally colorful and complex world, they might be good visual learners.

iPad Time and Shrimp Snacks

The researchers caught A. aculeatus in the warm coastal waters of Ryukyu Archipelago, Japan. They then trained the octopuses to touch unfamiliar objects, both real and on a screen, by giving them rewards of shrimp when the mollusks touched something within 100-120 seconds. 

The scientists started the training with simple white balls. After three octopuses were trained to grasp the real white balls, they successfully learned to reach out for the white balls on the iPad screen as well. 

Next, the octopuses were trained to reach out for a white cross. After that, the octopuses learned to reach out for a white cross on the iPad screen.

Amazingly, the octopuses could recall which shapes they had learned before – and choose the familiar ones on a screen. When shown a variety of shapes, octopuses who were trained to reach for the white cross tended to reach for the familiar shape. More than half of the octopuses could recognize the shape from real life on a screen.

Increasing screen time

The researchers have found that tropical octopuses can be successfully trained to respond to not only real-life objects, but also to virtual ones on a screen.

Learning from a screen can seem difficult and inconvenient, but it works for octopuses – and for humans, too. Research tells us that online and classroom learning are both pretty efficient and the main factor of success is not the physical location of teachers and students, but rather persistence. (1) To learn anything at all, we need to keep pushing beyond failures and boredom. If you are a tropical octopus, a tasty reward of shrimp may help keep up the motivation!


Additional reference

  1. Ni, A. Y. (2013). Comparing the effectiveness of classroom and online learning: Teaching research methods. Journal of Public Affairs Education, 19(2), 199-215.


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