Ursula is a common octopus at Living Coasts, Torquay’s coastal zoo and aquarium. She may be a common octopus but she has an uncommon talent - she can solve puzzles and break in to sealed containers.
Living Coasts Operations Manager Clare Rugg explained: “She is very active and inquisitive. She can open screw lids, manipulate building blocks, unfasten things like catches and flip lids. She took only 10 seconds to open a waterproof casing for a camera – it took a human longer to work it out!”
With eight gripping arms, three hearts, copper-rich blue blood, camera-like eyes, camouflage skin and striking intelligence, the octopus is like no other creature on Earth. In fact, some experts have described them as aliens.
Clare: “We give her a lot of what we call environmental enrichment – it’s what zoos do to stimulate animals mentally and physically. It’s like giving toys to pets, but with a more scientific basis. We would like to invite people to devise puzzles or games for Ursula – the person who comes up with the idea that proves the biggest challenge to her will be able to meet her and her keepers. But I’m backing Ursula to beat all-comers!”
One stipulation is that there can be no metal in the devices, as it can be harmful to octopus. Materials used must be non-toxic and not sharp or pointed.
At two years old the smart marine mollusc is fully mature. Research has shown that the common octopus can distinguish the brightness, size, shape, and orientation of objects. This is the only invertebrate protected by laws in the UK governing animals used for experimental or other scientific purposes.
The common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) is widely-distributed. It as a natural life span of just a few years, so it is likely she will die of old age in the winter. Clare: “It’s lucky for us that they don’t live longer, otherwise they would probably rule the planet…!”
Living Coasts keeper Sarah Tingvoll is justifiably proud of Ursula’s abilities: “She is very intelligent. She can un–do screw top pots, jars and containers filled with food in seconds. We put food inside a house built of Lego bricks - she takes it apart. Then there are systems of plastic pipes and tubes she has to reach into to get food.
“In the past she has had water pistols, a Mr Potato Head toy and plastic mesh cages. We hang up shiny mobiles made of CDs and give her a floating ball to play with. She once squirted me with water when she wanted my glove and I wouldn’t let her have it.
“She interacts with anything you put in the tank, including cleaning equipment. One of her favourite games is to grab our cleaning equipment and have a tug of war with you… She is very strong, she will always win! It takes two people to clean out her tank – one to distract her, one to clean!”
So what sort of enrichment devices can people make for Living Coasts’ awesome octopus? Her keepers will decide what is safe to give her, but they have some hints and tips:
“Bigger, better, more complicated, more complex plastic tube networks, perhaps where she has to open the ends to get in. Or segments she has to pass through to go further into the tube. Also, balls and floats, perhaps where food can be hidden inside - we feed her live crabs, sometimes dead prawns and muscles.
“Another idea might be box systems to unlock – maybe try putting boxes inside boxes? Plastic mazes – and maybe some sort of bubble machine – so long as she can’t break it! Just so long as there are no metal parts.”
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