Is This Picture-Taking Octopus as Smart as She Seems?

Octopuses can be trained to do many things, but this one may be getting too much credit.

What’s got eight arms, shoots pictures underwater, and lives in New Zealand? Answer: Rambo, a female octopus in a New Zealand aquarium that trainers have taught to photograph visitors using a waterproof digital camera mounted to the side of her tank. A Sony video that went viral this week shows fans eagerly posing for her.

Animal behaviorist Mark Vette, with Animals on Q—a New Zealand company that trains animals for film and television—used food rewards to teach the octopus to press the camera's shutter in response to a buzzer. She picked up the task fairly quickly, he says, but in living up to her action-star-name, Rambo also destroyed two cameras. (Watch a sneaky octopus take apart a camera.)

Vette spent about six to eight weeks training Rambo. The hardest part was building a camera case tough enough to withstand the curious creature. "We went through a dozen iterations," he says.

Teaching her to associate the buzzer with a food reward was easier; that only took three tries, Vette says. He was then able to teach Rambo that the buzzer meant she had to take a picture before she could be fed.

When octopuses touch something, they're usually looking to see if they can take it apart to find something to eat inside, explains Rich Ross, an aquarium biologist with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. "They're very food motivated."

They're also very curious. If the Academy staff don't give the octopuses in their care toys to play with or enrichment activities, they get bored, he says. And bored octopuses will find things to do on their own—like pull apart their aquarium.

National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry has the greatest respect for octopus intelligence. "You're in a game of wits when photographing them," he says, because the animals can change their skin color and texture and squeeze into tiny spaces.

"I always find myself laughing when I work with them," he says, because "they're a handful." (See pictures of these masters of disguise.)

Neither Skerry nor Ross were surprised that Rambo learned to take pictures.

The Kelly Tarlton Sea Life Aquarium in Auckland, New Zealand is selling their octopus's photographs to visitors for about $1.50 (U.S.). The proceeds will go towards aquarium operations and programs.

Some of the animal's work is up on Sony New Zealand's Facebook page. The portraits are fairly standard, although in a few, Rambo couldn't seem to get one of her tentacles out of the way.

"That happens with the best of us," says Skerry.

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