Description: The octopus is not a particularly social animal. While that might sound like the start to a fairy tale or to a “Just So” story it is actually simply a scientific fact. Octopi typically avoid social contact entirely including avoiding other members of their species. They Do, however, have to engage socially with at least one other octopus at least once in a while in order to mate. It turns out that octopi seem to use a mechanism to flip this social/asocial switch that is virtually identical to how we manage social connections, using the serotonin system. How did they test this? Well, they used the drug ecstasy or MDMA which alters mood in humans by driving a serotonin “dump” which, in the short term provides strong feelings of social connectedness and positive social affect in humans. How did this work in Octopi? Well read through the article linked below to find out. While you read through it pay attention to and think about what research like this with octopi might tell us about ourselves.
Source: Octopuses given mood drug “ecstasy’ reveal genetic link to evolution of social behavior in humans, Science News, ScienceDaily.
Date: September 20, 2018
Photo Credit: Ton Kleindinst/ Marine Biological Laboratory
So, exposure to MDMA (ecstasy) lead the octopi to spend time being close with a caged male octopus while most octopi not exposed to the drug avoided the caged male octopi. Their behavior while on the drug paralleled that of human rave attendees on ecstasy (not the dancing but the increased frequency of social touching). It seems that octopuses’ social behavioral tendencies are there most of the time but suppressed in and by non-mating circumstances in ways that produce the “loner” behavior they are best known for. The functioning of the serotonin system, while referred to most often in humans as region related to mood and being primary site of drug intervention in cases of depression, is likely involved in the evolution of our social connectedness as well.
Questions for Discussion:
- How does ecstasy effect social behavior?
- What might studying the effects of ecstasy in octopi tell us about human social behaviors?
- Did the octopus “social” behaviors described in the article linked above strike you as genuinely social? Why or why not?
References (Read Further):
Eric Edsinger, Gül Dölen. A Conserved Role for Serotonergic Neurotransmission in Mediating Social Behavior in Octopus. Current Biology, 2018; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.07.061
Fiorito, G., & Scotto, P. (1992). Observational learning in Octopus vulgaris. Science, 256(5056), 545-547. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Pietro_Scotto/publication/6052505_Observational_Learning_in_Octopus_vulgaris/links/09e41511a52a486581000000.pdf
Turchetti-Maia, A., Shomrat, T., & Hochner, B. (2017). The vertical lobe of cephalopods—a brain structure ideal for exploring the mechanisms of complex forms of learning and memory. In The Oxford Handbook of Invertebrate Neurobiology. http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190456757.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780190456757-e-29