A octopus is a complicated beast. All of those legs going everywhere, covered in suckers, it seems likely that they’d eventually get tangled up and stuck together like the cords behind your TV. It seems even more likely when you realize that for the most part octopus legs don’t even bother to check in with octopus’s brain before acting.
But they don’t, and not understanding why they don’t has been an embarrassment to scientists who never got around to finding out why. Until now.
A new study shows that octopuses have a chemical mechanism in their skin that produces molecules that keep them from getting stuck on themselves.
“Everybody knew the lack of knowledge in octopus arms, but nobody wanted to investigate this,” Guy Levy, a neuroscientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a co-author of the study, told The Verge. “Now we know that they have a built-in mechanism that prevents them from grabbing octopus skin.”
An octopus can also turn off this process if it wants to grab another octopus, but this feature seems to be the 1.0 version because scientists noticed it seems to be filled with bugs.
“In some cases, when we submitted an amputated arm, the octopus would grab it like any other food item, holding it tightly with a web of skin between its arms,” Levy says. “But sometimes the octopus would get close to the arm, dance around it from side to side for a long time — sometime even tens of minutes.”
Levy said this could be caused by a conflict between the octopus’s brain and its its arms own decentralized nervous system.
“The brain wants to grasp the amputated arm,” Levy says, “but the arm is refusing.”
The new knowledge about the octopus could have applications in robotics and medicine, Levy said, although scientists will have to do a lot more research to discover exactly how the chemical process works first.
“We are aiming at building a surgical soft-manipulator that might be able to scroll inside the human body while avoiding interactions between arms and parts of the human environment that aren’t involved in its tasks — like intestinal walls,” he said.