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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Octopuses Capable of Hand-Eye Coordination

By Helen Albert,
May 30, 2011

LONDON: Octopuses are able to use visual cues to guide a single arm to a location, a complex movement that was not thought possible due to their lack of a rigid body structure, say researchers.

The octopus' arm is made up primarily of muscle with no skeletal support, so octopuses were previously believed to have a low level of body awareness and only limited control over their limbs. However, this study has shown for the first time that they can direct a single arm in a complex movement to a target location.

"Octopuses have a central nervous system that is advanced for an invertebrate, but simple compared to a vertebrate, yet it is capable of controlling a much more 'difficult' arm," said lead study author Tamar Gutnick, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.

"Because of the unique body plan of the octopus its ability to control a single arm in a complex movement is quite amazing."

Too soft for complex movement?

Octopuses were thought to have no conscious central nervous system-directed (CNS) control over their arms with movement being controlled solely by the activity in the complex array of nerves (PNS) present in the limbs.

However, the visual aspect of the task carried out by the octopuses in this study suggests that there must be an exchange of information between the CNS and the PNS during such behaviours.

Photo by Tamar Gutnick

In Gutnick and colleagues' experiment, six out of seven octopuses succeeded in using a single arm to select a visually marked compartment containing a food reward in a three-choice, plexiglass maze.

The animals were required to reach the compartment containing the food reward at least five times in a row out of a total number of trials ranging from 61 to 211. The octopuses could only use one arm to complete the task, as the tube leading to each compartment was only wide enough for one limb.

How brains control behaviour

The team observed that the chance of a successful trial improved significantly during the last 20 trials for each animal compared with the preceding trials.

They also noted that the animals seemed to learn that they needed to see the three boxes to improve their chances of getting the reward and were significantly more likely to be in view of the boxes during the last 20 trials than during the earlier tests.

The octopuses also adapted their arm use strategy from mostly 'straight', involving a direct unrolling or pushing upwards of the arm through the tube, to a 'search' strategy, involving probing and crawling in the central tube and above the choice boxes before deciding on a compartment.

Photo by Michael Kuba

It's not automatic

"This is a very important step in our knowledge of octopus behaviour," commented Jennifer Mather, a professor of psychology and expert on octopus behaviour at Lethbridge University in Alberta, Canada.

"The octopus has a large number of complex arms, and the question of how they manage to guide all of them is a fascinating one. We had previously thought that it might be fairly automatic or that their control was more at the local level within the arm. This is good evidence that local control need not be all," she added.

Studies involving octopus motor control, such as this, are the foundation of a current European Union research project to develop a robot octopus (Octopus Project). The aim of the project is to design and produce a soft-bodied robot that moves and squeezes through narrow spaces in a similar way to a biological octopus.

"Depending on the size of the robot its use could be from medicine (constructing new soft-bodied ultra flexible surgical tools) to big robots that could be used in search and rescue," said Gutnick, who is continuing her research on motor control.

"We are continuing to look at single arm tasks where animals are taught using a variety of senses, exploring the involvement of central and peripheral information," she said.


Hammeroogirl said...

Hello - i am excited to discover your blog about Everything Octopus as this creature has captured my attention in a big way ! I wonder if you would take a moment to view my website as I do many images of the incredible creature in hand hammered copper wall pieces. My website address is i am a metalsmith from the US but after a move with my family to Australia became entranced by not only the visual artistic beauty but also their incredible nature and abilities.
I hope this isn't inappropriate solicitation of my work - I just thought you might enjoy my artistic interpretations of the octopus !
Kind Regards

Martin J Sallberg said...

I propose an experiment for testing my non-nativist theory of situation-bound altruism. Take two octopuses of a completely solitary species, and place them in neighbouring aquariums where they can see but not touch each other. Each aquarium shall contain two buttons of different shapes. The buttons is to be used at food time. When it is time for food, hang two buckets of food (i.e. fish), one over each aquarium, in automatic bucket tipping devices. Flash the buttons in one of the aquariums. One of the shapes will empty both buckets and give both octopuses food while the other will only empty one bucket and only give the octopus that pressed the button food. At next food time, flash the buttons in the other aquarium and let the other octopus decide, and keep alternating between them. The point is that it is NOT a zero-sum game sharing test. The octopus that press the button gets the same amount of food regardless if it gives the other octopus anything. I predict they will first press the buttons randomly and then learn to always press the button that gives them both food. I base that prediction on the fact that the ONLY reason why the old theory of harmonious mutual aid in nature was debunked is because the existence of interest conflict in nature was discovered. Thus, mutual aid should only require that the aider loses nothing. It should NOT require any positive gain. It is already well-documented that apes calculate how much fruit they find, sharing it generously if it is a "post scarcity" abundance but keeping it selfishly if it is a smaller amount. Warning signals observed in many different animals are also best explained by this model. Unlike believers in the machiavellian intelligence hypothesis, i do NOT believe that the reason why altruism towards non-kin is most common in brainy animals is because reciprocal altruism is anyhow part of what drives the evolution of intelligence. Instead, I think the reason why altruism towards non-kin is most common in brainy animals is because brainpower improves the ability to discriminate between situations (in this case between conflict situations and conflictless situations), while dumber animals with their inability to discriminate between situations generally assume that the situation contains interest conflict, out of safety first, not to do any stupid sacrifices. That is why the experiment should be done on brainy animals that can be known for sure to have no innate social instincts at all. Some species of octopus seems the best candidate. Real brains of living beings, unlike computers, are based on grades of probability. That is enforced by evolution because it is necessary in order to circumvent unplanned obstacles (which conventional computers have demonstrated their inability to do), probabilistic processing is necessary in order to be able to think "A is not identicalto B, but B is still the closest thing to A I know of, therefore somewhat analogous solutions can be applied". Probabilistic processing means that the point in having large brain capacity is NOT to process many information bits computer-style, but rather precision. Precision such as conceptual discrimination. If you get bureaucratic problems with the experiment in your country, hand the project over to scientists abroad. Also, use octopuses that do not know each other individually from before, just to prevent instrumental status demonstrativeness that may ruin the whole test.

Written by Martin J Sallberg