World news – Fast-learning squids pass the marshmallow test


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March 2, 2021

from Marine Biological Laboratory

Similar to the popular TikTok challenge where kids don’t eat snacks, octopuses can do the same thing! Squids can delay gratification – wait for a better meal instead of being tempted by the one – and those who can wait the longest can do better on a study test, too, scientists found.

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This fascinating report is the first time a link between self-control and intelligence has been found in animals other than humans and chimpanzees. It will be published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The research was carried out at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole while lead author Alexandra Schnell of the University of Cambridge, UK, resided there as a Grass Fellow . Schnell’s staff included MBL senior scientist Roger Hanlon, a leading expert on cephalopod behavior and joint lead author of the paper. « We used an adapted version of the Stanford Marshmallow Test on children Had the choice of receiving a reward (1 marshmallow) immediately or waiting for a delayed but better reward (2 marshmallows), « says Schnell. « Squids in the present study could all wait up to 50-130 seconds for the better reward and tolerated delay, which is comparable to what we see in large-brained vertebrates like chimpanzees, crows, and parrots. »

Squids Those who could wait longer for a meal also showed better cognitive performance on a learning task. In this experiment, squids were trained to associate a visual cue with a food reward. Then the situation was reversed so that the reward was linked to a different cue. « The squids that learned these two associations the fastest were able to control themselves better, » says Schnell.

Why squids developed this ability to control themselves is a bit of a mystery. Delayed gratification in humans is believed to strengthen social bonds between individuals – such as waiting for food to be served first for a partner – which benefits the species as a whole. This may also be a function of tool animals waiting to hunt while the tool is being built.

But octopuses are not social species and they do not build tools. Instead, the authors suggest that delayed gratification may be a by-product of the squid’s need to camouflage in order to survive.

« Squids spend most of their time camouflaging, sitting, and waiting, interrupted by brief periods of foraging » says Schnell. « They break camouflage when they forage, so they are exposed to any predator in the ocean that tries to eat them. We speculate that a byproduct may have developed a delayed gratification so that the squid can optimize its foraging by opening up better quality waits for food. « 

Finding this relationship between self-control and learning performance in a species outside the primate lineage is an extreme example of convergent evolution, in which completely different evolutionary histories have led to the same cognitive trait.

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