Octopus Intelligence Has Been Proven by Science—Here's How

Plans are underway to open the world's first octopus farm in Spain—a move that has been met with considerable backlash from animal rights groups.

Spanish seafood commercialization company Nueva Pescanova aims to open the octopus farm in 2023, to meet growing demands for the delicacy, Reuters reported. The company has poured $74 million into the project and claims it has optimized tanks that will ensure high welfare farming.

Reuters said this project builds on decades of research on how to perfect octopus breeding conditions on an industrial scale. Once the farm is up and running, the aim is to generate 3,000 tonnes of octopus a year by 2026. The seafood will then be sold domestically and internationally.

But the plans have been met with criticism from animal welfare groups and scientists. Octopus intelligence has been proven time and time again. The U.K. government even recognizes them as sentient beings. This poses serious ethical questions on whether high welfare farming is even possible.

Elisa Allen, Director at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), told Newsweek that octopuses are recognized as "Einsteins of the sea."

"Cramming these clever cephalopods into tanks or netted pools in which they would be denied everything that gives their life meaning would be unconscionable—which is why scientists, conservationists, and tens of thousands of PETA supporters are calling for plans for this octopus prison to be scrapped," she said. "These fascinating, highly intelligent animals should be respected and allowed to live their lives in their natural environments, not imprisoned and killed for tapas."

But just how intelligent are these animals and what evidence do we have to show it?

Octopus
A picture shows aoctopus on sale at a street market in Italy. The farmed ocotopus would be sold internationally and domestically. Tim Graham/Getty Images

They feel sadness

Scientists have shown that octopuses feel pain and sadness, just like humans. Last year, the London School of Economics said octopuses were "sentient beings," meaning they are capable of processing complex emotions. The findings were based on over 300 existing scientific studies surrounding octopus behavior.

While it is difficult for scientists to interpret a feeling or emotional state of an animal, assessments around octopuses neural activity, when confronted with harmful situations, suggests that they experience negative emotional distress.

The London School of Economics said these findings matter ethically because, if a being is sentient, there should be limits on what a human can do to that being. The researchers were convinced that due to these findings, high welfare octopus farming would be impossible.

They use tools

Octopuses are resourceful and learn from their environment. Many octopuses have been observed piling up objects and using tools. In 2009, octopuses in Indonesia were observed collecting discarded coconut shells. The octopus carried the tools to a new location and used them to build a shelter, in anticipation of future predators.

The only other examples of tool use in the animal kingdom come from other animals associated with high levels of intelligence such as apes, monkeys, birds and dolphins.

Octopus
Octopus have a number of clever hunting techniques Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

They are thoughtful predators

In the wild, octopuses are not just formidable predators, but thoughtful ones. They can use their camouflage skills and their arms to explore and touch their environment, assessing which attack mechanisms to use on which prey.

They have a number of clever ways to defend themselves. Depending on the predator, they can quickly camouflage themselves to go unnoticed, mimicking their surroundings. Or, they can do the complete opposite, and make colorful displays to startle the predators. They can squeeze themselves into the smallest of spaces to hide, and quickly propel themselves through the water to escape.

They may dream

Octopuses have even been observed dreaming. Two years ago, an octopus called Heidi was filmed changing colors during her slumber.

The footage mesmerized people around the world, and it got scientists thinking. Octopus neuroscientist Sylvia Medeiro studied the sleeping patterns of four octopuses and believed they experienced a similar state of dreaming to humans.

According to Harvard Medical School, humans dream in order to make important connections between new information and old information; the evidence backs up suspicions that octopuses have the ability to remember, learn and improve.

Octopus farming future

Whether the creation of an octopus farm can be stopped as a result of ethical concerns is unclear. Several petitions have gone live but the $74 million project seems set to go ahead and the commercial incentives are clear, Reuters reported.

Eduardo Almansa, from Spain's Oceanography Institute, which developed Nueva Pescanova's farming technology, told Reuters that if octopus continued to be consumed, an alternative must be met as fisheries have "reached their limit."

"For now aquaculture is the only available option," he said.

Some wildlife groups, however, believe the solution is simple—stop eating octopus altogether.