At Living Coasts, we have one of the ocean’s most intelligent creatures; the octopus. Our common octopus, Octavia, can be found downstairs in the aquarium, in the depths of her watery den.

If you are lucky enough to come on one of her feed days (Monday, Wednesday or Friday) and stop to listen to a presenter talk about her, you will see her tackling a puzzle to reach her food.
That’s right, she is able to solve challenges. On these days, we create something to keep her stimulated and engaged. In the wild, the most active time for these animals is when they go out to hunt and we like to replicate that here, giving her something to occupy her time instead of handing her food which doesn’t require any energy expenditure from her and isn’t interesting or stimulating for her.

This is what we call environmental enrichment - it is used across the site with other animals too, such as the penguins, seals, otters, rays and even some of the fish! This is all about creating a more natural and stimulating environment for animals in zoos to improve their welfare. Octavia is given a variety of toys and puzzles that encourage her to use her brain, strength and energy in order to access her food.

I am currently doing a study to test her memory and learning abilities. So, I have been giving her a few different challenges and repeating them a few weeks later to see if there is a decrease in the time it takes for her to get to her food. For example, a very simple test was giving her food in a plastic clip-lock container and she had to unclip the box to get to her food. The plan was to observe her and see how long it took - but either she couldn’t figure it out or she was outsmarting me by not opening the box!

I left the box in her tank overnight - in the morning the box was open and the food was gone. I waited 2 weeks and gave her the same challenge and again, she wouldn’t open it whilst I was observing her but the next morning, the box was open and the food gone. I may need to start secret surveillance on her tank… A similar challenge involved a square tube maze with one end open and the other sealed off. I wanted to see if she would go inside to get to the food as her arms were not long enough; she wouldn’t when I was observing her - but the next morning the food was gone. I definitely think she is cunning.

On days where she doesn’t get fed, she will still get some enrichment to keep her occupied. This includes toys, tubes, containers and anything she can manipulate and explore. Sometimes, if she doesn’t smell food, she might not bother with the toy - but we like to give her that option.

If she is unable to figure out a puzzle, she will sometimes result to brute force and pull things apart or give up - I think of her as having a little tantrum (she is about as intelligent as a 3 year old child, after all).

She is very playful, often splashing us with water when we clean her tank or take the toys away. This is a side of her that people don’t get to see. Most people think she is creepy or strange but I think she is beautiful and so fascinating, I could watch her all day - sometimes do!

Just to highlight why she is so incredible, here are a few facts: She is able to change not only the colour but the texture of her skin! Often when I am observing her, people walk past and think her tank is empty but in fact, she has changed purple to match the rocks and her skin has small projections to mimic their rough texture.

Along her 8 arms, she has 2 rows of suckers on each that can taste the environment around her and this is how she knows whether a toy or puzzle has food in it - the dissolved scent molecules in the water are sensed by her suckers.

Coming up with different enrichment for her keeps us just as occupied as the enrichment we produce keeps her… maybe that’s her plan...

Meghan Davitt, Living Coasts research student

Quotes All the animals are lovely with plenty of space to move about and play. Quotes