Taking MDMA may make some people feel like an octopus, but does an octopus feel like a human when they roll? According to new research published today in Current Biology, the answer is yes. When given the party drug, a relatively antisocial, solitary species of octopus became more social, engaged, and generally interested in its surroundings.
Why would one want to dose up an octopus? To better understand the evolutionary heritage of social behaviors across the animal kingdom, of course. (Sidebar: How do we get in on that research lab?)
"[A] major argument for studying octopuses is exactly that they are so evolutionarily far away from us," lead researcher Gul Dolen told IFLScience. "Thus, it’s a little bit like studying alien intelligence, it can potentially tell us a lot about the 'rules' for building a nervous system that supports complex cognitive behaviors, without getting bogged down in the incidental (necessary but contingent) organization of brains."
To do this, researchers divided an aquarium into three equal-sized partitions: the first held a new object (we’ll call this the “toy room”), the second held nothing, and the third housed another octopus restrained in a plastic container that the other octopus could see, touch, and pick up on chemosensory cues, but not come into the same space. The researchers then placed the experimental octopus in the center and recorded how much time an octopus spent in each of the chambers over a 30-minute test session.
When the octopuses were rolling, they exhibited some out-of-character behavior. Not only did they spend more time with other octopuses, but they also engaged in “extensive ventral surface contact” – touching of the other animal’s underside – in an exploratory, unaggressive way. When you have eight arms with thousands of highly sensitive suction cups, it's no wonder.