A four-year-old octopus may be smarter than a four-year-old child, depending on how you define intelligence and adaptability. Tool use, forethought, reasoning and puzzle-solving skills have all been observed in elephants, chimpanzees, dolphins, birds and octopi.
In the class of Cephalopods, from the Latin “head-foot,” octopi are able to solve puzzles and mazes, open jars, steal things, hide from predators, squirt ink, communicate with color, recognize faces and play with toys.
This intelligence seems to come from their unique evolution. Scientists recently discovered that octopi, along with some squid and cuttlefish species, routinely edit their RNA (ribonucleic acid) sequences to adapt to their environment.
When a multicellular animal adapts, genetic mutations typically take place in the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). This genetic material, present in every cell in the body, is then translated by RNA producing a protein that is modified so the animal can be more heat resistant or a different shade of brown or sing louder, as needed. This is how animals evolve and survive in their changing environment. If DNA is like an orchestra conductor, RNA is the musicians producing sounds that go together in a particular way creating a song. But RNA doesn’t always follow the conductor; occasionally it improvises. This alters which proteins are produced in the cell. In most animals, this process is called RNA editing.
Octopi do it differently.
In a collaborative study between marine and brain science labs in the United States, Israel and Puerto Rico, Joshua Rosenthal, a neurobiologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Wood Hole, Massachusetts, and his colleagues found a trade-off in octopi. Their RNA editing gives them the ability to diversify brain proteins to adapt to environmental changes quickly, but they have lost some ability to evolve genetically over time.
One of the reasons octopi can learn to play with toys and escape predators is that over their evolutionary history tens of thousands of RNA-edited sites have been conserved. The editing is particularly enriched
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