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Danna StaafRSS Feed of this column.

Cephalopods have been rocking my world since I was in grade school. I pursued them through a BA in marine biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, followed by a PhD dissertation at... Read More »

So there's this big art competition in Grand Rapids, MI. Artists make art, show it in one of numerous venues, and everyone who wants to can cast a vote. The piece winning the most votes lands the artist a $250,000 prize.

One of the pieces is a life-size drawing of a giant squid. The artist's statement is surprisingly comprehensible:
"How smart are squid?"

I get this question a lot, and I always hedge the answer. The obvious dodge, of course, is to say: what does "smart" really mean and how would you quantify it in a cephalopod? Complexity of puzzles solved? A reading test? Ability to outwit researchers?
May not sound like news, but for the last 70 years, we've been making assumptions about human neurons based on measurements from squid neurons. That's not quite as ludicrous as it sounds--squid axons are enormous, and so for a long time, they were the only tractable system for learning much of anything about neurobiology.

However, technology has since advanced to the point that someone could finally make the same measurements on our near and dear mammalian cousin, the long-suffering lab rat, and found--surprise!--different results.
(And by "we" I mean "other people in my lab, not me.")

Humboldt squid showing up off Washington State wasn't just a blip on the radar--apparently they're still there, and the local fishermen are happy to haul them in. Luckily for us scientists, some of the locals are just as happy to share their boats as data collection platforms!
I love it! As soon as I start whining about how humans are always exploiting resources without checking first for sustainability, along comes a story to prove me wrong.

The Giant Pacific Octopus or GPO, who lives throughout the Pacific Northwest (if terrestrial terms) or Northeast (in oceanic terms), has never been the target of a federally managed commercial fishery. But occasionally people murmur about it, and some clever folks have decided that we'd better know a bit more about octopus biology before such a fishery (octopussery?) comes on the scene.
The Cephalopod International Advisory Council is convening in Vigo, Spain even as I write. Yes, I wish desperately that I were there right now! At least I can follow along by wistfully reading the abstract book, which they were kind enough to post.

Let's start at the very beginning . . . wait, the very beginning lists "restaurants nearby to the congress" and now I am imagining tortilla española auténtica and salivating . . . so let's not start at the beginning. Let's skip ahead to the symposium opening and the first invited talk: