Cuttlefish can expect a reward

The common cuttlefish can be trained to wait for significant periods of time to feed.

The common cuttlefish can be trained to wait for significant periods of time to feed.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the least recognized members of the cephalopods, a group that counts octopuses, squid and nautilus among their ranks, cuttlefish much remains to be demonstrated. Recently, a crew of six cuttlefishSepia officinalis) did just that, concentrating their sinusoidal pupils and their collective 48 arms and 12 tentacles on the task of late gratification before dinner, for the sake of a more delicious meal.

The cuttlefish test was the project of an international team of researchers seeking to probe the intelligence of cephalopods, a field less explored than similar lines of research for mammal and bird species. The team’s investigation was published Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Animal cognition has been a subject of human intrigue at least since Darwin sent shockwaves by establishing an evolutionary connection between humanity and primates. Scientists have been seeking to better understand the limits and range of animal cognition ever since, most notably in the work of Ivan Pavlov and his dogs or BF Skinner and his rats. But recent researchers have gone beyond the questions of classical conditioning and focused on the ability of dogs to retain entire word banks for your toys or pigs’ fondness for playing video games.

“Our understanding of why self-control evolved has always been based on evolutionary pressures that are relevant to long-lived social species,” Alexandra Schnell, a comparative psychologist at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the recent paper, said in an email. . “Cuttlefish have not experienced the same pressure.”

For the last six adolescent cuttlefish to participate in the study (Mica, Pinto, Demi, Franklin, Jebidiah, and Rogelio, as two other cuttlefish dropped out), the task was to choose from a readily available piece of raw shrimp. or waiting for the possibility of being offered a live grass shrimp to eat, the latter being the most coveted meal. The team that studied them found that after training, some cuttlefish they were able to wait up to two minutes to get the best reward, showing that they understood the implications of waiting a while before taking action. Cuttlefish who were particularly patient were also quite thoughtful when they changed the terms of the exercise. When the food reward signal changed, those patient cephalopods were quicker to adapt.

Schnell works with his cephalopods at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Schnell works with his cephalopods at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Picture: Courtesy of the Grass Foundation

Cuttlefish are not as social as humans or chimpanzees, as the latter species tend to live in groups that help to practice certain principles of self-control for the good of the whole group. As a result, it was not certain whether the animals would be so reluctant about free food.

“This finding is an extreme example of convergent evolution,” said Schnell. “Cuttlefish have significantly different evolutionary histories than the more commonly studied apes, corvids and parrots, and yet they have the same cognitive characteristics.”

Schnell said the cuttlefish’s self-control could be attributed to its need to stay still in the wild to remain camouflaged, in contrast to the self-control abilities typically associated with group activity for more social creatures. The animal only comes out of its sedentary hiding place to search for food, which it does in moderation.

“This doesn’t give us the whole picture and each study only offers one piece of the puzzle,” Schnell said. “We need many more studies before we can make meaningful comparisons between the general intelligence of cuttlefish and large-brained vertebrates.”


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