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Cuttlefish, just chilling. Credit: Alexandra Schnell.

The Cthulhu-esque cuttlefish might actually be a lot smarter than we ever thought

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Mar 12, 2021, 4:27 PM EST (Updated)

Don't underestimate the cuttlefish. Besides being made in the image of Cthulhu (or something like that), these alien-looking creatures are far more intelligent than they might appear.

In a new experiment led by Alexandra Schnell, it was found that cuttlefish are actually capable of resisting an initial treat for quite a while when they know that they will get something much more appetizing if they wait. So much for immediate gratification. The scientists just gave them shrimp instead of human souls.

Scientists found this out when they tried a trick used on human children with cuttlefish. This experiment usually involves offering a choice of being able to have one marshmallow right away, or two if you wait. The cuttlefish were right on when it came to the same test offering them a piece of king prawn now, or a tastier grass shrimp later. It shows a surprising amount of self-control and ability to learn in cuttlefish, something usually reserved for vertebrates such as parrots and apes. Yes, humans are apes, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

“Prior to this research, we might have thought growing fast was their most important goal because they have to reach a healthy mature size in order to breed within a short lifespan,” Schnell, who led a study recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, told SYFY WIRE. “But this study provides evidence that cuttlefish have the capacity to hold out for preferred food and thus desire for preferred food might override the impulse to just eat everything to reach a certain size quickly.”

Cuttlefish are thought to have evolved the ability to delay gratification because they themselves are sought after by many fiercer monsters of the deep. At least they have their own cosplay built right in. They spend most of the time hiding out in camouflage, changing the color and even texture of their skin to disappear into their surroundings (this almost supernatural ability in cephalopods is something that has been further studied to make next-gen wearable camo). They only come out to forage for short stretches before they go from predator to prey.

A hungry cuttlefish trying to hold out for a better treat. Credit: Alexandra Schnell

When cuttlefish do hunt, they know they have to maximize the quality of the prey they snatch up before time runs out, which is probably why they performed surprisingly well in this experiment. That still doesn't mean they were not faced with temptation. The cuttlefish recruited for the experiment had to wait longer and longer for the tantalizing grass shrimp each time, and all the cephalopod subjects became more likely to give in as gratification was delayed more and more. Schnell believes that cuttlefish evolved similarly to larger-brained vertebrates without any relation to them. This phenomenon is convergent evolution.

“This research is an extreme example of convergent evolution, where the same cognitive feature has co-evolved in animals with completely different evolutionary histories,” she said. “Finding cognitive similarities in diverse taxa can help us gain a more comprehensive understanding of the origins of intelligent traits.”

So cuttlefish must have evolved self-control because they need to make themselves invisible to predators and maximize the quality of their prey when they do venture out of their hiding places, but it is almost unbelievable to think they could compete with a chimp or a parrot when it comes to learning. Parrots have brain power that is comparable to that of a human 4-year-old. However, the evolutionary pressures on cuttlefish are probably what pushed them to learn for their own survival. Faced with more predators, more foraging obstacles and fierce mating rivalry over at least 100 million years, they needed to get around whatever was in their way.

The ancestors of cuttlefish and other extant cephalopods had a protective shell which most of them evolved out of — the nautilus is a rare example of one that did keep its shell. Ditching the shell meant that octopus, squid and cuttlefish could swim further out to new habitats, but each of those habitats had its own predators and other pressures, such as limited places to hide, which meant they had to keep evolving survival tactics. Even being shapeshifters did not necessarily help when it came to the intense pressure to find a mate and breed within an extremely short period. Miss that, and your genes don't get to live on.

If cuttlefish are capable of one thing that larger-brained creatures can do, that raises questions as to what else they could show off. Self-control is thought to be a part of how more sophisticated species plan for the future. This could mean the same for cuttlefish.

“Finding self-control in cuttlefish is intriguing because the ability is fundamental for other more complex cognitive abilities to evolve such as complex decision-making and future planning,” Schnell said. “Does this mean that cuttlefish are also capable of planning for the future? We aren't sure yet but I'd certainly like to find out and hope to investigate this question in the future.”