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Inky the Octopus stages brazen escape from New Zealand aquarium (+video)

Inky, a wild octopus, slipped out of his tank at the New Zealand National Aquarium. What does the cephalopod's clever escape say about animal intelligence?

Until recently, the New Zealand National Aquarium had an octopus named Inky. Now, aquarium staff have announced that, several months ago, they believe that Inky made it back home to the ocean, in a jailbreak worthy of a Steve McQueen movie.

Inky arrived at the Aquarium in 2014, looking a little worse for the wear. He was picked up by an Aquarium volunteer from a cray pot near Pania reef. 

“It seemed like a good name, a reflection of one of his protective mechanisms, squirting ink when he feels he’s in danger,” said Gerry Townsend, a Napier New Zealand resident who won the naming contest.

Inky’s Houdini-like escape through a tiny opening in the top of his tank is indicative of his species’ intelligence.

Author and octopus aficionado Sy Montgomery says that octopuses are very bright. “Octopuses are very curious,” she tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “They love to explore objects, take things apart, and put them together.”

For her work on "The Soul of An Octopus," a National Book Award finalist, Ms. Montgomery spent three years working with octopus experts and the cephalopods themselves.

Montgomery spent a significant amount of time at the New England Aquarium, where she not only witnessed an octopus escape, but also observed first-hand the keen intelligence of these ocean-dwelling creatures.

The captive octopuses were so curious, she says, that an aquarium employee invented a toy with a series of locks. The persistent and nimble-tentacled animals could unlock a delicious reward: a snack of crab.

It is not unusual for octopuses to escape, especially if they get curious about the outside world.

Octopuses are also very good at locating water sources, says Montgomery, who added that they can only survive for about 15 minutes out of water.

Fortunately, suction cup prints on the aquarium floor indicate that Inky located a drain that led to the ocean.

When the New Zealand National Aquarium first announced Inky’s name in 2014, staff noted that he, like many intelligent animals, could easily get bored in captivity.

“He’s got a few battle scars and a couple of shortened limbs which will eventually grow back, but he’s getting used to being at the aquarium now,” said curator of exhibits Kerry Hewitt. “We have to keep Inky amused or he will get bored.”

Inky’s escape raises ongoing questions about animal intelligence and cognition.

“One of the problems when we try to look at animal intelligence,” says Montgomery, “is that we try to measure it by our own. They have intelligence that we do not. Their way of seeing and experiencing the world is so different than ours.”

Studies show that octopuses recognize individuals, no matter what clothes they are wearing. They also have distinct personalities and enjoy playing with toys. Yet only recently, Montgomery says, have scientists recognized cephalopods as having intelligence.

Only in recent history have humans recognized cognition in any non-human animal. Stephen Newmyer of Duquense University told the Monitor by phone that our ancient ancestors were convinced that animals were not thinking beings.

“Greek philosophers like Aristotle argued that animals were not rational,” Dr. Newmyer said. “People have guarded that thought through the years.”

More recently, Newmyer says, studies have questioned whether or not animals have emotions or if they are self aware. One famous study questioned whether animals experienced a sense of belonging to a group.

In 2011, a group of scientists from a number of neurological fields came together in Cambridge, England, to write the Cambridge Declaration. They announced that all mammals and birds possessed the mental ability to generate consciousness.

Octopuses are highly intelligent, curious, and personable creatures, but they still can’t quite communicate their wishes to human caretakers. After Inky’s escape, Aquarium manager Rob Yarrall lamented to Radio New Zealand, “He didn’t even leave us a message.”

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