Meg versus the mollusc at Living Coasts

Posted: 3rd April, 2017

Living Coasts, Torquay’s coastal zoo, is currently the venue for a battle of wills – between a research student and a super-intelligent mollusc.

Meg Davitt is a student at the University of Surrey, where she is studying Veterinary Biosciences. She is currently on a one-year placement at Living Coasts carrying out research.

Her adversary is one of the ocean’s most intelligent creatures; the octopus. Common octopus Octavia can be found in the zoo’s aquarium, lurking in the depths of her watery den. People who visit on one of her feed days - Monday, Wednesday or Friday - and listen to one of the presenters get to see her tackling a puzzle in order to reach her food.

Common by name but uncommon by nature, Octavia is a jet-propelled member of the largest group of sea creatures – the molluscs - with three hearts and blood based on copper rather than iron (like ours).

In the wild, hunting for food can be hard work. Animal experts try to replicate this by giving animals puzzles instead of just handing over the food. The idea is one of many collectively known as environmental enrichment, a concept widely-used in top zoos. At Living Coasts, animals such as penguins, seals, otters, rays and fish all get enrichment to help keep them stimulated and engaged.

Meg: “We set her challenges. It’s about creating a more natural and stimulating environment for animals in zoos. Octavia gets a variety of toys and puzzles that encourage her to use her brain, strength and energy. Meghan is currently doing a study to test Octavia’s memory and learning abilities.

“I’ve been giving her different challenges and repeating them a few weeks later to see if there is a decrease in the time it takes for her to get to her food. For example, a very simple test is giving her food in a plastic clip-lock container - she has to unclip the box to get to her food while I watch to see how long it takes her.”

However, Octavia plays by her own rules…

“Either she couldn’t figure it out or she was outsmarting me by not opening the box when I was looking! I left the box in her tank overnight and it was open in the morning. I waited two weeks and gave her the same challenge - again, she wouldn’t open it whilst I was observing her but the next morning, the box was open and the food gone. I may need to start secret surveillance on her tank!

“A similar challenge involved a square tube maze with one end open and the other sealed off. I wanted to see if she would go inside to get to the food as her arms were not long enough but again, she wouldn’t when I was observing her but the next morning the food was gone. I definitely think she is cunning!”

On days where she doesn’t get fed, she still gets enrichment, including toys, tubes, containers and anything she can manipulate and explore. “If she doesn’t smell food she might not bother with the toy, but we like to give her that option.”

Meghan has detected some fascinating character traits in Octavia: “If she is unable to figure out a puzzle, she will sometimes resort to brute force and pull things apart or give up and sulk. I think of her as having a little tantrum - she is about as intelligent as a 3-year-old child, after all!

“She is very playful, often splashing us with water when we clean her tank or take her toys away. This is a side of her that people don’t get to see. Many people think she is creepy or strange, but I think she is beautiful and fascinating, I could watch her all day - and sometimes I do!”

Meghan is keen to praise the abilities of her opponent. “She is able to change not only the colour but the texture of her skin. Often, when I am observing her, people walk past and think her tank is empty, but in fact she has gone purple to match the rocks and her skin has developed small projections to mimic their rough texture.

“Along her eight arms, she has two rows of suckers that can taste the environment around her - this is how she knows whether a toy or puzzle has food in it. The dissolved scent molecules in the water are sensed by her suckers.”

Coming up with different enrichments for her keeps the Living Coasts animal staff as busy as their enrichments keep her. Perhaps that has been Octavia’s plan all along…

Two years ago her predecessor, Ursula, became an internet star when animal staff appealed for new puzzles to defeat her and people from around the world responded.

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