Ideas

Brainiac

A city of octopuses

AP Images

It’s not as big as Tokyo or Shanghai, but a newly discovered “city” of 15 gloomy octopuses off the eastern coast of Australia still caught marine biologists by surprise.

The creatures have been widely assumed to be loners, but the gloomy octopuses cohabiting in “Octlantis” show noteworthy social behaviors. They interact regularly, build and maintain dens, compete over those dens, and collaborate against interlopers. “This suggests,” researcher David Scheel told the website Quartz, “that when the right conditions occur, evolution may produce very similar outcomes in diverse groups of organisms.”

It’s happened before. Scientists previously identified an octopus settlement that they dubbed Octopolis.

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The unusual cleverness of octopuses has implications beyond underwater settlements. They’re the most intelligent creatures from any branch of Earth’s evolutionary tree far distant from our own. Our ability to collect, process, and act on information is relatively centralized in our brains and spines; theirs is more distributed around their bodies. “This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien,” the philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith wrote in a recent book. The idea that octopuses are urbanizing the seafloor is pretty cool; what they tell us about ETs is mind-blowing.