Mark Dery: How the Cephalopod Became Our Zeitgeist Mascot

Squid Liberty Gamma Go t-shirt

Mark Dery writes for the recently retired h+ magazine:

H.G. Wells’s Martians, in War of the Worlds (1898), are octopuses by any other name: “heads — merely heads,” their cephalopod-like beaks ringed by “whip-like” tentacles. On Wells’s Mars, ultra-advanced “mechanical appliances” and “chemical devices” rendered physical labor and even bodily processes such as digestion obsolete, begetting creatures with freakishly overdeveloped brains and shriveled, vestigial bodies. Writing in Victorian England, where the Hobbesian social order struck a sour note amid the symphony of industrial progress, Wells wondered if a similar fate awaited Homo faber. “[T]he Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands (the latter giving rise to the… delicate tentacles… ) at the expense of the rest of the body,” the narrator speculates, in War of the Worlds. “Without the body, the brain would, of course, become a mere selfish intelligence, without any of the emotional substratum of the human being.” […]

“I believe that the totemic image for the future is the octopus,” wrote the cyberdelic philosopher Terence McKenna, in 1990. Fresh from immersion baptism in hyperreality — his first encounter, via Virtual Reality, with a 3-D simulation he could walk around in — McKenna was convinced that humanity was poised for a techno-evolutionary leap. Ever the McLuhanite, he believed that humans are transformed by their labor-saving gadgets and mind-warping media. The cephalopod pointed the way forward, he said, because squid and octopuses “have perfected a form of communication that is both psychedelic and telepathic; a model for the human communications of the future.” Rebooting McLuhan’s dream of forging, through digital connectedness, a global consciousness that transcends linguistic barriers — “a state of absorption in the logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace” (McLuhan) — McKenna extolled the octopus’s jaw-dropping ability to telegraph its emotional state by means of “a large repertoire of color changes, dots, blushes, and traveling bars.”

h+: Kraken Rising: How the Cephalopod Became Our Zeitgeist Mascot

See also: Fuck Yeah Octopus

Animals That Live Without Oxygen

Multicellular animal that can live without oxygen

Scientists have just discovered the first multicellular animals that can survive entirely without oxygen. They live in the L’Atalante Basin in the Mediterranean Ocean, a place with salt brine so thick it doesn’t mix with oxygen-containing waters above.

This is pretty crazy stuff. Previously, it was thought that only single-celled life could exist in such inhospitable places, but this proves otherwise.

Gizmodo: Animals That Can Live Without Oxygen Discovered, Aliens Basically Guaranteed to Exist Now

(Thanks Bill!)

Problem-solving crows may not be as smart as we thought

smart crow

a crow, when first faced with a bit of meat dangling from a bit of string, figures out a solution pretty much instantly. This has led researchers to posit that crows build mental models that generate solutions, instead of relying on trial and error. Now, a bunch of Kiwis have published research in PLoS One that suggests crows don’t actually build models.

What is the difference between model-based solutions and feedback-based solutions? When we rely on feedback, we first perform an action—pull on the string and trap it underfoot—if we perceive that we are closer to our goal (the meat is now closer), we repeat the action. A model-based solution, on the other hand, involves understanding that the meat is connected to a bit of string, and that to get the meat, we must pull the string up. In the second case, feedback after each step is not required, because we understand the problem and know that we will be rewarded in the end. […]

I must admit to having a little problem with that conclusion. First, one crow did solve the problem; second, the crows all varied widely in their performance on all of the tests, suggesting that problem-solving abilities vary wildly between individuals—no surprise there. Finally, I think the distinction between model-building and feedback-based problem solving skills are artificial points in a mental toolkit that spans a continuum.

Ars Technica: Problem-solving crows may not be as smart as we thought

See also: Joshua Klein’s classic TED talk about the intelligence of crows

Secrets of octopus intelligence

fuck yeah octopus

Wood favors a conservative definition of tool use. By that standard—an animal using a solid object to solve an immediate problem, rather than just to provide defense against potential predators—there aren’t any real clear examples of octopuses using tools. But, he said, defining tool use isn’t a black or white issue. There’s no single, official right answer.

Mather works from a different, but still valid, definition. She doesn’t count the coconut shell as a tool, because the octopus isn’t modifying the shell in any way, and isn’t using it to alter other things in its environment.

But she does think octopuses use tools. In 1991, she documented octopuses collecting rocks and stacking them, outside the opening of a shelter, to form a protective fence. In fact, she said, the octopuses tended to do this before they went to sleep. That doesn’t count as tool use to Wood, but with several scientifically sound definitions, there’s room for interpretation.

Boing Boing: Behind the meme: Secrets of octopus intelligence

Cephalopods lovers should also check out Fuck Yeah Octopus.

Solar-powered sea slug harnesses stolen plant genes

solar slug

It’s the ultimate form of solar power: eat a plant, become photosynthetic. Now researchers have found how one animal does just that.

Elysia chlorotica is a lurid green sea slug, with a gelatinous leaf-shaped body, that lives along the Atlantic seaboard of the US. What sets it apart from most other sea slugs is its ability to run on solar power.

Mary Rumpho of the University of Maine, is an expert on E. chlorotica and has now discovered how the sea slug gets this ability: it photosynthesises with genes “stolen” from the algae it eats.

New Scientist: Solar-powered sea slug harnesses stolen plant genes

(via WTF Nature)

Scientists say dolphins should be treated as ‘non-human persons’

Dolphins have been declared the world’s second most intelligent creatures after humans, with scientists suggesting they are so bright that they should be treated as “non-human persons”.

Studies into dolphin behaviour have highlighted how similar their communications are to those of humans and that they are brighter than chimpanzees. These have been backed up by anatomical research showing that dolphin brains have many key features associated with high intelligence.

The researchers argue that their work shows it is morally unacceptable to keep such intelligent animals in amusement parks or to kill them for food or by accident when fishing. Some 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die in this way each year.

Times: Scientists say dolphins should be treated as ‘non-human persons’

(via Don Eglinski)

Nearly 100 new species described by California Academy of Sciences in 2009

In 2009, researchers at the California Academy of Sciences added 94 new relatives to our family tree. The new species include 65 arthropods, 14 plants, eight fishes, five sea slugs, one coral, and one fossil mammal. They were described by two dozen Academy scientists along with several dozen international collaborators.

Proving that there are still plenty of places to explore and things to discover on Earth, the scientists made their finds over four continents and two oceans, climbed to the tops of mountains and descended to the bottom of the sea, looked in their owns backyards (Yosemite National Park) and on the other side of the world (Yunnan Province, China). Their results, published in 29 different scientific papers, add to the record of life on Earth and will inform future studies on biodiversity, evolution, and conservation.

PhysOrg: Nearly 100 new species described by California Academy of Sciences in 2009

(via Social Physicist)

An octopus and its coconut-carrying antics have surprised scientists

Underwater footage reveals that the creatures scoop up halved coconut shells before scampering away with them so they can later use them as shelters.

Writing in the journal Current Biology, the team says it is the first example of tool use in octopuses.

One of the researchers, Dr Julian Finn from Australia’s Museum Victoria, told BBC News: “I almost drowned laughing when I saw this the first time.”

He added: “I could tell it was going to do something, but I didn’t expect this – I didn’t expect it would pick up the shell and run away with it.”

BBC: Octopus snatches coconut and runs

(Thanks Cat Vincent)

Mutant emerges from cave, stoned to death by children

panama mutant

A slimy, glob-like creature dubbed Gollum has terrified children after it slithered out of a lake and clambered over the rocks towards them.

The young teenagers were playing by the waterfront in a Panama lake near Cerro Azul when the bald beast emerged from a cave behind a waterfall. They started screaming as it shuffled out “as if to attack them”. […]

But in a “desperate bid to defend themselves” four children grabbed rocks from the beach and hurled them at the beast.

Having killed it they picked up the body and tossed it back into the lake, before fleeing.

Metro: ‘Gollum-like’ monster emerges from lake


(Thanks Trevor)

California Dog Cloning Company Ends Services

BioArts International, a biotech company in the San Francisco area, has discontinued its commercial dog cloning services. As such, the company has also ended its partnership with South Korean cloning vendor Sooam Biotech Research Foundation and its head Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk.

The fifth and final set of cloned dogs was delivered in September.

Lou Hawthorne, chief executive officer, cited a list of reasons why the company made its decision, a tiny market being one of them. […]

Hawthorne also blamed black market competition. A company that would offer the same services would be in violation of international patents, he said, because BioArts holds the sole, worldwide rights to clone dogs, cats and endangered species.

For instance, a South Korean biotech company advertised in February 2008 that it would clone dogs at a fraction of BioArts’ price, starting at $150,000 and then down to $30,000.

Dog Channel: California Dog Cloning Company Ends Services

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