The Social Octopus

Latest update August 4, 2019 Started on September 15, 2018

Brain evolution has often been correlated with the demands of social life, the idea being that navigating the complexity of social interactions has the potential to drive the evolution of cognition. However this theory does not seem to explain how solitary octopuses can express such high levels of cognition, i.e. intelligence. Or does it? The aim of this project is to describe the social environment octopuses live in the wild, during collective hunts with partner fish, how inter-specific communication is performed, and how it affects decision making of both octopuses and fish partners.

September 15, 2018
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In The Field

AI-based octopus tracking in the wild!


The octopus evolved separately from vertebrates for ~600 million years, and one of the main characteristics developed for its survival is the visual disruption of its movement (through changes in color, shape, and texture), which is essential to deceive predators and prey.

At the moment, the project team is developing artificial intelligence capable of tracking, not only the animal, but also several body parts! Now we can use this technology to learn more about their behaviour, through the movement and body postures of these curious animals in the wild!


O polvo evoluiu separadamente dos vertebrados durante ~600 milhões de anos, e uma das características desenvolvidas para a sua sobrevivência é a disrupção visual do seu movimento (através de mudanças de cor, forma e textura), que é essencial de forma a conseguirem iludir predadores e presas.

Neste momento, estamos a desenvolver inteligência artificial capaz de acompanhar o movimento, não só do animal, mas também das várias partes do corpo! Agora poderemos usar esta tecnologia para aprendermos mais sobre o seu comportamento, através do movimento e posturas corporais destes curiosos animais no seu meio-ambiente!

Dynamic skin!

Move aside chameleons or any other color changing animals!

Cephalopods are the undisputed champions of adaptive camouflage... but not only! Their skin is covered by chromatophores, iridophores and leucophores. The fact that these skin components are all closely controlled through direct neural wiring allows cephalopods to dramatically change colors in a split second. Octopuses can use their skin to camouflage, send signals to other animals, and even mimic other animals!

Even more peculiar is their modulation of skin texture. By controlling the projection and shape of skin papillae, they can form bumps, grooves, and spikes to mimic corals, algae, other animals, or also to send signals!

We compiled videos of some of the best skin changes we've seen while on the hunt, so you can see for yourself :)

The combination of all these skin components creates mesmerizing patterns that serve ecological and biological functions, but also blows our brains away!

Enter another cephalopod cousin: the Squid!

The Bigfin Reef Squid (Sepioteuthis lessoniana) is native to the Red Sea and other coastal areas around the Indian and Pacific oceans. Individuals of this species, in particular, are characterized by their elongated fins (no way!). Squids in general have ten arms and two tentacles always visible (unlike the other cephalopod cousin, the cuttlefish), and are known for their elongated bodies and large eyes.

They exhibit complex mating displays, with complex movements and color signals, especially from the male directed to the female. The mating season takes place around May, so we came in a perfect time to witness it!

The squid also have a giant axon which controls jet propulsion. This single neuron directly connects the brain to the end of the mantle, making it one of the largest in the animal kingdom, in relation to body size. Impressive!

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Eduardo that footage is so fabulous! Was it taken with your Trident?

Preparing for the next field season!

Guess where we are going?

We are back with some exciting news! This year we are crossing the Red Sea, and going to the outskirts of El Qoseir, Egypt!!!

Field season 2 is set to happen between May and July for 2 whole months, and we are sure to get very nice footage to share with whom is following our project along! Beyond the already-known 'Optopod', in this trip we will explore a few more novelties, such as our recently awarded Trident OpenROV, which we will use to find octopus-fish interactions, and continue following even when after run out of air. Super handy!

This time my buddy will be Martim Seco, a recent addition to our team. Martim is a Master's student in Informatics and is working on automating animal tracking on our videos, through the use of artificial intelligence. This way, more than just looking at some nice footage, he will also fully experience the dive sites and have the opportunity to capture videos in the wild. Not bad! I'm sure we will make a great team!

We will stay in touch with more news, as we prepare for this next campaign!

A preparar o próximo trabalho de campo!

Adivinham para onde vamos?

Estamos de volta com algumas novidades emocionantes! Este ano vamos atravessar o Mar Vermelho, indo para a periferia de El Qoseir, no Egito!!!

O trabalho de campo (Parte 2) está programado para acontecer entre maio e julho durante 2 meses, e temos a certeza que vamos obter filmagens muito boas para partilhar com quem está a seguir o nosso projeto! Além do já conhecido 'Optopod', nesta viagem iremos explorar mais algumas novidades, como o nosso recém-adquirido Trident OpenROV, que será o usado para encontrar interações entre polvos e peixes, e para continuar a sua filmagem, mesmo após ficarmos sem ar nas garrafas de mergulho. Vai dar muito jeito!

Desta vez, o meu buddy de mergulho será o Martim Seco, uma recente adição à nossa equipa. O Martim é um aluno de Mestrado em Informática, e está a trabalhar na automatização de rastreamento de animais nos nossos vídeos, através do uso de inteligência artificial. Desta forma, mais do que apenas olhar para algumas filmagens agradáveis, ele também experimentará os locais de mergulho e terá a oportunidade de capturar vídeos na natureza. Nada mau! Tenho certeza que faremos um óptima equipa!

Manteremos o contacto e daremos novidades enquanto nos preparamos então para a próxima campanha!

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Looks like a great project, socialness in cephalopods is a very exciting area.
In The Field

New science communication video!

While we are analyzing data from Eilat, and planning a new expedition for this year (destination to be disclosed!), we are simultaneously complementing our scientific skills, by learning more on how to perform better and more effective science communication.

I recently attended an online National Geographic Video Production Course, and decided to do my final assignment about this project, of course! In the making of the video, I was challenged to introduce this expedition, and explain how we solved one problem that was inherent to the logistics of said project. I decided to explain how we solved the problem of lack of depth perception in capturing videos in the field (... but without spoiling too much :) ).

This video is the product of my first dive into the world of video editing, so it is still far from a professional outcome. Nonetheless, hope you enjoy it, and if you have constructive comments please share them!

Knock, knock, who's there?

Looks like Christmas came a little late this year!

It keeps getting better and better. Today at the home lab (at Laboratório Maritimo da Guia, in Portugal - -), we received two Christmas presents that will play a huge role in this project:

The first was the Trident ROV from the S.E.E. Initiative: This underwater drone will enable us to find and follow octopus-fish interactions during a significantly larger amount of time, which will make our expeditions more efficient time wise, and hopefully allows us to see events that we have been missing! The second was a NVIDIA Titan V, donated by the NVIDIA corporation. This GPU (Graphical Processing Unit) is one of the most advanced in the world, which will make our life much easier when it comes to analyzing data! Massive thanks to OpenROV and the S.E.E. Initiative, as well as to the NVIDIA corporation, for providing with us with state-of-the-art tools to perform research!

As a token of appreciation, we plan to use the ROV for the benefit of the general audience as well! In addition to the advantages it brings during fieldwork, the ROV can be employed to make inspections of our own coastal environments, providing us with continuous information on biodiversity and ecosystem status. The movies shot will also serve to introduce student classes to marine fauna, and talk about differences between temperate and tropical ecosystems. We hope that this will more easily awaken their curiosity to conservation, exploration, and science!

It's going to be an exciting year!

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Wait... what is that coming in the bottom left part of the video?

Today we found our first encounter with an Octopus cyanea (friends call him/her simply "octopus") hunting together with multiple fish species! And to top it off, it lasted more than one hour!!

We have been spending three hours per day inside the water, distributed between morning and afternoon, looking for octopuses. These cryptic animals are notoriously hard to find given their excellent camouflage abilities, but we had spotted some that unfortunately shied away inside their den, when we came closer. However this time we managed to find one that was actively searching for food, and did not care about us filming at all!

In the video below, this amazing animal is shown doing a variety of typical foraging behaviours, such as jumping, crawling, and arm-probing for food. In a beautiful display, this prospection sometimes escalates to what is called a "web-over", where the octopus surrounds a rock or coral with its eight arms and expands the skin between the arms, appearing to form a "web", to more easily capture prey!

During this hunt, this octopus is accompanied by a multitude of partner fish, such as the lyretail grouper, yellow-saddle and long-barbel goatfish, blacktip grouper, and a broomtail wrasse. Even a rockfish makes a cameo! It is important to understand that all of these fish have significantly different strategies for obtaining prey, which means that all the partners can benefit at given parts and/or stages of the hunt.

Can't wait for our next encounter, and to analyze these events in post-processing!


Wonderful observation. Can we meet up? and maybe discuss cooperation in Eilat? We too have a high school students environmental research program in Eilat/ Reuven 053-7671290

Let the search begin! This is the beggining of our 1 month campaign in Eilat, searching for interspecific collective behaviour in the Red Sea! While we have not found any Octopus cyanea yet, we have marvelled at the existing coral and associated fish species that live here. Together they paint a beautiful underwater portrait of life and diversity!

Success! A few days ago, I travelled from Portugal to Germany to meet Simon, at the Max Planck Institute in Konstanz, to build our stereocamera setup. This setup will allow us to perform 3D tracking of animals, and recreate these amazing interspecific cooperative hunts in a computer environment, so we can quantify everything that is going on in a very rigorous way. We then performed the first tests in the Red Sea (Eilat, Israel), and it works like a charm! Take a look at our stereocamera rig, dubbed 'Optopod' by popular vote!


Awesome project and I love your camera kit!

Thanks Christian, looking forward to see more of yours as well!

Expedition Background

This project aims to unravel new depths on octopus cognition and describe interaction networks in naturally-occurring multi-species foraging bouts, by analyzing collective movement and occurrence of specific behavioral elements. Using a multicamera setup and advanced computer vision techniques, we aim to gauge social intelligence in an otherwise-solitary mollusc (Octopus cyanea), understand leadership during cooperative hunting (fixed or interchangeable nuclear predator), and how this relates to the costs and benefits for all parties involved. Lastly, we want to provide more information for conservation, since ecological benefits of integrating these multi-specific foraging groups still lack quantification, and are mostly unaccounted for when stakeholders and wildlife groups build (either species- or ecosystem-specific) conservation strategies.

To this end, we will record hunting events between O. cyanea and fish in a variety of locations, being the first one in the Red Sea (Eilat, Israel). By performing fieldwork at multiple locations, we want to understand how these interspecific groups can vary in composition and strategies, so we can build conclusions that are robust to biological variation.


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