My friend Sarah sent me a news clipping of Rambo the octopus. She wanted to know how Rambo learned to take pictures of tourists.

When I went to the New Zealand aquarium’s website I found the following news story by Mariella Moon:

There's an unusual photographer working for Auckland's Sea Land Aquarium. His name is Rambo, and we doubt he personally manages the $2 per shot he earns taking pictures of tourists. That's because Rambo is an octopus -- a very smart one who learned how to press the shutter after three tries. "That's faster than a dog," said Mark Vette, his trainer. "Actually it's faster than a human in some instances.”

What a fun and creative fundraiser developed by Sony and the aquarium. The Sony TX30 compact camera is placed in a protective plastic case just outside the octopus tank. When Rambo’s trainer, Mark Vette, presses a high-frequency buzzer Rambo reaches out of the tank and presses a large red plunger placed just above the camera's button. Rambo learned in only three trials how to use the camera. (Mark likes to point out that she learned faster than most people would.)

Rambo the octopus and her specialized camera.


Does Rambo really take the picture?

Technically no. Rambo presses a red plunger after hearing a tone. It is basic operant conditioning. So if the truth be told, Mark Vette is taking the picture. Rambo doesn’t know that she is taking a picture. She knows that shrimp shows up after two things happen. Her “thought” process is, 'When I hear a buzzer I can press the red plunger and yeah! Shrimp...yum!' It’s Mark Vette’s job not to press the tone button until the aquarium visitors are lined up correctly in front of the camera and smiling.

All this being true, it must be great fun to get your picture taken by an octopus.

How do you teach an octopus to snap a picture?

Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s teach you how to take a photograph.

In our thought experiment you are pulled out of your bed and find yourself in a small room. You can hear stuff, but you can’t really make out what the noises mean. In your small room there is a red plunger built into a plastic housing on the wall. The room is empty and boring.

You’re not sure what is going on, except you know you don’t want to be in this small room. So you investigate your environment. You find what seems like a door, but no matter how hard you push, nothing happens. You decide not to make a lot of noise, figuring you don’t really want to meet whoever was powerful enough to grab you out of bed and lock you in this room.

On one wall you find a small tube. When you play with it you realize that the tube has a small ball in it blocking the opening. You touch the ball and it moves easily. Water drips out. You're kind of relieved that at least you won’t die of thirst in this little jail cell.

After a bit, you decide to investigate the red plunger on the other wall. You can’t tell what it does but you also think that it’s probably a good idea to not press it. “What if it blows up the room with me in it?” you half joke to yourself.

“Well it can’t hurt just to touch it,” you think. “There isn't much else to do in this place.” So you gently touch it, not enough to move it, just a slight touch… then “clank” you hear a sound, and from an opening just below the red plunger’s housing a small piece of Kit Kat falls out.

You are fond of Kit Kats, but also cautious.

“I could eat,” you think to yourself. You throw caution to the wind as you gobble up the candy. “Hmmm,” you think, “this is a food dispenser.” Once again you just barely touch the red plunger. But this time nothing happens.

“What? Where is my candy?” you wonder. You are feeling a little frustrated because you thought you understood the rule of the red plunger. So you do what comes naturally. You swat at the red plunger, pressing it a little harder this time. “Yeah,” you smile as a Kit Kat piece rattles down the outside wall and falls into your enclosure.

For a few minutes you press the plunger and every time you get rewarded with candy. Now you are thirsty, so you go and get a drink of water.

With not much else to do you sit in the corner and take a nap.

Over the next few days, you eat Kit Kat pieces and an occasional baby carrot. After loads of candy, the carrot is a nice change of pace. Plus, you notice that it is kind of fun not knowing what treat you are getting. You are really bored, so it is easy to find anything stimulating.

On what you think is the third day, you wake up to a new sound in your room. It is a nice enough sound, but not all that exciting. Feeling hungry, you go over to your red plunger and press it. “Hope it’s a carrot,” you think. But, no such luck. Candy falls onto the floor. You're hungry so you gobble it up.

You realize the sound has stopped but you don’t really think about it. It’s breakfast time and you want some goodies. You push the plunger but no food falls out of the wall. “What!” you yell at the plunger, “Where’s my breakfast?” You are upset and take it out on the stupid red plunger. Whack, whack, whack, you pummel the defenseless plunger. Nothing! In frustration you try to tear the plunger off the wall and even find yourself bitting it. Still nothing. You are surprised at how angry you feel.

In total disgust for the stupid red plunger you throw yourself into the corner and try to calm yourself down.

There’s not much else to do. So, once you're calm, you mosey back over to the red plunger. As you reach for it, the sound returns. You press the plunger and yeah!!! Food. You're so happy you press it again and again…Yeah!!! A carrot and then six candy pieces in a row.

You are enjoying your baby carrot, when the sound stops. This gets your attention and you quickly press the red plunger. Ah, just as you suspected, no snack. You feel oddly calm about the whole thing. You're pretty sure you have figured out the reason for the sound. Knowing you're not going to get any snacks, you press the red plunger a few times in rapid succession. You're feeling back in control. No food, but you're ok. You understand the rules, and that makes you feel safer.

A little while later you’re talking to the water tube, “Don’t cry, I’ll be your friend.”

Suddenly, the tone fills your small enclosure. As if your feet had wings you leap over to the red plunger and press it. Food drops onto the floor. You press it over and over and enjoy the sound of food rattling down the outside tube and onto your floor.

The tone stops, and without a care in the world you ignore the plunger and happily focus on the food and your friend the water tube. The red plunger is dead to you!

Over the next few days, whenever the sound fills your room you rush over to the red plunger and press it. But you only ever get one snack at a time. You quickly learn that no matter how much you press the red plunger you are only getting one piece of food, but that’s ok, you're resigned to only pressing it once. Why bother doing more if the plunger is going to be stingy.

You find yourself pressing the plunger whenever the sound tells you to. It’s just your job, so you do it. And besides, you notice that you're kind of hungry all the time. You’re never really getting enough treats to get full.

Unbeknownst to you, you are on display in an alien zoo. Large-eyed, eight-armed aliens are paying 2 alien dollars to have you take their picture. You don’t know you are famous and affectionately called, “the first humanoid photographer.”

“Look Mommy,” one little alien shouts in joy, “humanoids are so smart even though they only have one brain!”

Operant conditioning

In 1911, E.L. Thorndike explained the Law of Effect. Thorndike showed that when learning, behaviors may be altered by their effects on the environment. What this means in plain speak is that behaviors (responses) that lead to positive outcomes (free tasty shrimp or candy) are increased and behaviors that lead to negative outcomes (no shrimp) are decreased. Simply put, Thorndike noted what we all know, if something works for us (or an octopus), we do it again, if it doesn’t work for us, we stop doing it.

Rambo quickly learned that if she hears a buzzer and then pushes the red plunger she gets shrimp. This works for her so she keeps doing it.

See Rambo in action in this video. Enjoy!


Octopuses are smart

Octopuses are intelligent and curious. Researchers have noted that octopuses are quick learners and can even learn from watching another octopus solve a problem. I find this interesting because octopuses are solitary creatures so they don’t have a lot of opportunities to learn from one another the way social animals do. In experiments octopuses that watch another octopus unscrew a lid off a jar to get a tasty shrimp, copy the behavior right away when given a shrimp in a glass jar. If an octopus hasn’t seen how to open a jar it will only take them a few minutes to figure it out.

Is it true that octopuses have more than one brain?

Yep, octopuses have nine brains. One central brain, and one for controlling each appendage. The main brain is about the size of a walnut and is connected to nerve clusters in each arm. Each nerve cluster seems to be able to think independently. The central brain seems to coordinate the independent tentacles as well as run the other bodily systems. Want to know more about octopus brains?

Let me know what you think about this article or send me a question. I’d love to hear from you.

ContactDr. Philip Copitch
Best Buy Co, Inc.