Evolution of Intelligence in Cephalopods


Coleoids (octopus, cuttlefish and squid) are a group of shell‐less cephalopods and exhibit remarkable indicators of intelligence, namely complex nervous systems and flexible behavioural repertoires. In contrast to the most established model groups for studying intelligence (e.g. primates, corvids, cetaceans), coleoids do not appear to engage in enduring social bonds and have fast life histories (e.g. short life spans). Cephalopod cognitive evolution is hypothesized to have been shaped primarily by predatory and foraging pressures, but a challenging mating context may also have played a role. However, our current understanding of cephalopod cognition is still sparse. Future research will be essential to test the influence of different selective pressures in cephalopod cognitive evolution. In parallel, a systematic investigation of coleoid cognition is needed to quantify the cognitive complexity in these fascinating molluscs.

Key Concepts

  • Coleoid cephalopods (octopus, cuttlefish and squid) diverged from other molluscs by evolving a set of iconic traits, including highly mobile shell‐less bodies, manipulative appendages and complex nervous systems.
  • The brain has a kind of modality‐specific and topological somatosensory and somatomotor map comparable to mammalian brains, and recent molecular findings propose their deep homologies and specific novelty.
  • The remarkable behavioural flexibility reported in coleoids indicates that they may be endowed with complex cognitive abilities.
  • Cephalopod cognitive evolution may have been shaped primarily by predatory and foraging pressures, but challenging mating scenarios may have acted as an additional pressure.
  • The unusual co‐occurrence of enhanced cognition and fast life history in coleoids may have been influenced by high unavoidable mortality that followed the disappearance of the external shell.
  • Future research will be vital to investigate the complexity of cephalopod cognition and the influence of ecological and social pressures in the cognitive evolution of cephalopods.

Keywords: cephalopods; molluscs; brain; cognitive evolution; intelligence; behavioural flexibility; octopus; cuttlefish; squid

Figure 1. The octopus brain and major sensory inputs from the body. (a) Lateral view of an octopus brain, showing localized, body‐specific sensory pathways in the sub‐ and supra‐oesophageal mass, and a part of the frontal and vertical lobe system (shaded in orange). The majority of axonal bundles from bodies runs into restricted lobes to organize a visuotopic or somatotopic map (e.g. buccal or brachial map). Minor small axonal bundles are sparsely interconnected to diverse areas that are omitted for clarity. (b) Top‐down view of an octopus central brain and a pair of optic lobes with eyes. The frontal and vertical lobe system is split into subdivisions (shaded in orange). The brachial and visual sensory inputs are illustrated with arrows. For abbreviations, buc, buccal mass; ifL, inferior frontal lobe; opL, optic lobe; sfL, superior frontal lobe; vtL, vertical lobe.


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Further Reading

Darmaillacq AS, Dickel L and Mather J (2014) Cephalopod Cognition. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK. DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139058964.

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Amodio, Piero, Shigeno, Shuichi, and Ostojić, Ljerka(Aug 2020) Evolution of Intelligence in Cephalopods. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0029004]