Print Edition - 2018-09-26  |  The Guardian

Octopuses on MDMA

  • Octopuses on ecstasy behave just as people do in many ways
- PETER GODFREY-SMITH

Sep 26, 2018-

One continued a tradition of surprises from the octopus—and generated headlines around the world. Scientists Eric Edsinger and Gül Dölen gave octopuses the “party drug” MDMA, or ecstasy, and found that on the drug they were more inclined to approach other octopuses, and also interacted less cautiously, initiating more body contact.

The ecstasy experiment was small—using just four animals—and what resulted might have several different explanations. (The octopuses were always given their drugs after being tested without drugs in the same setting, and whenever experiences are ordered in time in this way, this can have its own effects. Some confusion resulting from the drug is possible, too, if the human case is any guide.) But it does seem that the octopuses, despite their vastly different brains, behaved in ways with surprising analogies to humans—especially in their willingness to initiate physical closeness, and general playfulness.

With the aid of genetic analysis, revealing a gene that probably affects these behaviours both in us and octopuses via the brain chemical serotonin, Edsinger and Dölen suggest that this research indicates that some mechanisms controlling social behaviour are very old in evolutionary terms—we last shared a common ancestor with octopuses well over 500m years ago. Whether those conclusions can be drawn about social life is unclear at this stage. This might be a situation where some ancient biological machinery can have a variety of roles in different organisms, sometimes helping to control social life, and sometimes doing other things, but perhaps often involving some form of exploration, evaluation and attraction.

This research adds to our own slowly evolving sense of what kinds of experience might be possible within animals far removed from us. Invertebrate animals had long been almost ignored when thinking about sentience and animal experience. But this is changing. Robert Elwood’s recent work has revealed good evidence that crustaceans such as crabs and shrimp can feel something like pain, and a study by Jean Alupay and others showed that octopuses tend and protect injuries on their arms. None of this work is decisive, but it all contributes to a picture in which a wide range of animals experience events as welcome or unwelcome. The ecstasy study complements this by exploring an elusive side of octopus behaviour—the side populated by inclinations, moods, and emotions. This is another hint that it will, in time, be possible to know what it’s like to be an animal very distant from ourselves.

Published: 26-09-2018 08:11

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