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Do Octopuses Have Nightmares?

By: Grace Gao

During a behavior and cognition study, scientists documented strange behavioral sequences of a captive cephalopod that seemed to resemble a nightmare.

Scientists at Rockefeller University in New York have recently documented unusual behavior of their captive cephalopod, an octopus named Costello.

Costello the Octopus was a part of the behavior and cognition study at the university along with another octopus named Abbot. Marine biologist Eric Angel Ramos noticed that as the cephalopod slept, he exhibited unusual behavior resembling a nightmare. After witnessing Costello’s spell, Dr. Ramos reviewed the footage of the octopus’s spell and noted the octopus’s defensive positions.

“This was not normal octopus behavior,” says Dr. Ramos. He adds that it is unclear whether Costello was conscious at any point of the ordeal.

“We were dumbfounded,” said Rockefeller biophysicist Marcelo O. Magnasco.

Costello had been sleeping peacefully, his body clinging to the glass walls of his tank. He slept without moving for half an hour before entering a deeper sleep, his skin cycling through different colors and textures; so far, this was normal behavior for an octopus.

After another minute, Costello left his place on the glass wall and scurried down to the sandy floor of his tank. He wrapped his arms protectively around his body. Suddenly, Costello began to spin around furiously. He darted around and squirted ink that blackened half his tank. After the ink cleared, Ramos saw him furiously grappling with a pipe.

Magnasco believed that Costello was defending himself, stating that his arms curling over his body seemed to be a defensive posture. He also noted that the octopus had tried to make himself look bigger and more intimidating during the ordeal. Costello then squirted ink, an evasive maneuver. When he could not escape, Costello appeared to resort to the offensive, attempting to strangle the pipe.

One researcher sums up Costello’s unusual behavior, “He starts to have these body kinds of, like spasms and then climbs down off of the wall and stretches his body out, and then he starts inking and sprays up the tank with ink" (CBS News).

Scientists are still debating the reason for Costello’s strange behavior sequence. Some believe it may be from seizures or neurological effects related to past trauma from when Costello lost two of his limbs. Others think it may be because of the panic or anxiety that often comes with being a captive animal. Whatever the reason, all researchers are encouraged to watch out for any unusual behavior in their cephalopods. Can these creatures really dream?

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