A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Farewell to the Psychic Octopus

Animals can do a lot more than predict the outcome of a soccer match

Paul the octopus passed away a week or so ago at his aquarium in Germany. The famous octopus had done well for his owners, boosting attendance at Sea Life in Oberhausen, after “predicting” eight winners in a row for the 2010 World Cup.

If you, in turn, predicted that the Merlin Entertainments Group, which owns Sea Life, would install a new “Paul” in his place as quickly as possible, you were right. The new Paul is all ready to let us know who’s going to win what in future sports events.

(Sea Life had credited an earlier octopus with successfully predicting winner in the Euro 2008 games – although he actually got some of those wrong.)

Whatever Paul’s true interest in soccer, the fact is we humans have always been obsessed with the idea of animals being able to foretell the future and have other supernatural talents. We’re fascinated by the idea that they can sense things we can’t. But at the same time we don’t want to think of other animals possibly being smarter or more intelligent than us.

Either way, we’re learning more and more about how other animals use senses that we can barely begin to understand. They tune into the magnetic fields of the planet when they’re migrating; they sense changes in the atmosphere or the ground before an earthquake; they pick up on human emotions and body language. There’s even a new theory about their being able to tap into subatomic particles to help guide them toward their destination.

Animals can do things that are a lot more interesting than guessing the winner of a soccer match.

Rupert Sheldrake, a Cambridge University scientist, has developed an interesting theory about what he calls “morphic resonance” – the idea of a “living, developing universe with its own inherent memory,” which is explained in his book Morphic Resonance. More interesting to the average pet lover at home might be his popular book Dogs Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, a study of the behavior of dogs who seem to know when their person leaves the store, the office or some other unknown location at a random time to head back home.

All in all, animals can do things that are a lot more interesting than guessing the winner of a soccer match.

Octopuses, in particular, are highly intelligent animals. They’ve figured out how to use the tools they need. (Tool use was until recently considered to be one of the defining features of humans.)They’re escape artists. There are stories of octopuses who have been captured at sea escaping from their tank and heading off, up or down the stairs, as they try to get off the boat and go back home. And there are numerous reports of them causing mischief at aquariums as they try to get out of their tanks or just explore their surroundings.

Studies show that octopuses learn easily, by watching others of their own kind and humans, too. They can solve problems like figuring out how to unscrew a lid to get the food that’s inside. They have complex nervous systems and brains that are relatively larger than many other fish and reptiles.

Many octopuses show behavior that suggests curiosity, consciousness and even a sense of humor, according to Eugene Linden, author of the 2002 book The Octopus and the Orangutan: More True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity.

Speaking at the aquarium where Paul the octopus lived and died, aquarium manager Stefan Porwoll said: “We are consoled by the knowledge that he enjoyed a good life.”

Knowing what we know about these intelligent creatures, it’s likely that Paul would have had a better life doing his own thing in the ocean.

More about octopuses

They have three hearts.

They can regrow lost limbs.

They can change color and body texture to become almost completely invisible against background rocks.

They can have a burst of speed by shooting out a jet of water.

And, of course, they can squirt ink into the water to form a screen to hide behind.

A mother octopus has just one litter in her life, giving birth to more than a hundred babies. Many of them won’t make it to adulthood, but she gives them all the best chance she can, feeding and caring for them until they’re ready to look after themselves. By that time, she has totally exhausted herself and she swims away to a quiet place where she ends her own life.