Watch: Octopus changes colors while (possibly) dreaming

Octopuses are known to rapidly change colors during sleep, but it's still unclear whether they dream like humans do.

Watch: Octopus changes colors while (possibly) dreaming
Image source: PBS
  • The clip is from an upcoming PBS TV show called "Octopus: Making Contact."
  • Octopuses have thousands of color-changing cells under their skin called chromatophores that can change colors almost instantly.
  • Scientists, however, still aren't sure exactly how octopuses coordinate all of these color-changing cells to form particular patterns.


Do octopuses dream? That's the main question raised in a new video showing a sleeping octopus rapidly changing color patterns, as if reacting to scenes in a dream — maybe one about catching a clam, camouflaging itself from a predator or, possibly, taking MDMA, as five octopuses did in one 2018 experiment.

The video is from an upcoming PBS TV show called "Octopus: Making Contact," in which Alaska Pacific University professor David Scheel raises and studies a "day" octopus in his home with his family. Why "making contact"? A clip from the show says octopuses are the closest thing on Earth to aliens, yet it remains unclear whether humans and octopuses could ever have a meaningful connection.

Scheel seems open to the possibility. "You look at them, and you feel like they're looking back," he says in a clip. "That's not an illusion. They are looking back."

In the video, Scheel speculates about whether the octopus — named Heidi — might be dreaming:

"She's asleep; she sees a crab and her color starts to change a little bit. Then she turns all dark. Octopuses will do that when they leave the bottom.

"This is a camouflage, like she's just subdued a crab and now she's going to sit there and eat it and she doesn't want anyone to notice her. It's a very unusual behavior, to see the color come and go on her mantle like that. I mean, just to be able to see all the different color patterns just flashing one after another — you don't usually see that when an animal's sleeping. This really is fascinating."

How do octopuses change colors? 

Just underneath the skin of these cephalopods lie thousands of color-changing cells called chromatophores that can change colors almost instantly, helping octopuses camouflage themselves in different situations.

"The center of each chromatophore contains an elastic sac full of pigment, rather like a tiny balloon, which may be colored black, brown, orange, red or yellow," writes Smithsonian Ocean. "If you stretched a dye-filled balloon, the color would gather in one spot, stretching out the surface and making the color appear brighter — and this is the same way chromatophores work. A complex array of nerves and muscles controls whether the sac is expanded or contracted and, when the sac expands, the color is more visible."

Still, it's unclear how exactly octopuses manage to coordinate color patterns. "The exact processes of how they match colors is still not fully understood, though it's being very thoroughly studied," Sara Stevens, an aquarist with Butterfly Pavilion, told Live Science. "But current research suggests that the actual cells themselves can match colors."

It's also unclear whether octopuses dream, especially in the same way that humans do.

"It's been hypothesized that octopus species can exhibit something very similar to REM cycles in humans — but the jury's still out on whether they're achieving REM sleep," Stevens added.

The new PBS video isn't the first to show what seems to be an octopus dreaming. In 2017, Rebecca Otey, a science and conservation intern for the Butterfly Pavilion, a nonprofit invertebrate zoo in Westminster, Colorado, shot a video of a Caribbean two-spot octopus changing colors as it slept.

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

SJADE 2018
Surprising Science
  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
  • It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
  • The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
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Volcanoes to power bitcoin mining in El Salvador

The first nation to make bitcoin legal tender will use geothermal energy to mine it.

Credit: Aaron Thomas via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

In June 2021, El Salvador became the first nation in the world to make bitcoin legal tender. Soon after, President Nayib Bukele instructed a state-owned power company to provide bitcoin mining facilities with cheap, clean energy — harnessed from the country's volcanoes.

The challenge: Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a digital form of money and a payment system. Crypto has several advantages over physical dollars and cents — it's incredibly difficult to counterfeit, and transactions are more secure — but it also has a major downside.

Crypto transactions are recorded and new coins are added into circulation through a process called mining.

Crypto mining involves computers solving incredibly difficult mathematical puzzles. It is also incredibly energy-intensive — Cambridge University researchers estimate that bitcoin mining alone consumes more electricity every year than Argentina.

Most of that electricity is generated by carbon-emitting fossil fuels. As it stands, bitcoin mining produces an estimated 36.95 megatons of CO2 annually.

A world first: On June 9, El Salvador became the first nation to make bitcoin legal tender, meaning businesses have to accept it as payment and citizens can use it to pay taxes.

Less than a day later, Bukele tweeted that he'd instructed a state-owned geothermal electric company to put together a plan to provide bitcoin mining facilities with "very cheap, 100% clean, 100% renewable, 0 emissions energy."

Geothermal electricity is produced by capturing heat from the Earth itself. In El Salvador, that heat comes from volcanoes, and an estimated two-thirds of their energy potential is currently untapped.

Why it matters: El Salvador's decision to make bitcoin legal tender could be a win for both the crypto and the nation itself.

"(W)hat it does for bitcoin is further legitimizes its status as a potential reserve asset for sovereign and super sovereign entities," Greg King, CEO of crypto asset management firm Osprey Funds, told CBS News of the legislation.

Meanwhile, El Salvador is one of the poorest nations in North America, and bitcoin miners — the people who own and operate the computers doing the mining — receive bitcoins as a reward for their efforts.

"This is going to evolve fast!"
NAYIB BUKELE

If El Salvador begins operating bitcoin mining facilities powered by clean, cheap geothermal energy, it could become a global hub for mining — and receive a much-needed economic boost in the process.

The next steps: It remains to be seen whether Salvadorans will fully embrace bitcoin — which is notoriously volatile — or continue business-as-usual with the nation's other legal tender, the U.S. dollar.

Only time will tell if Bukele's plan for volcano-powered bitcoin mining facilities comes to fruition, too — but based on the speed of things so far, we won't have to wait long to find out.

Less than three hours after tweeting about the idea, Bukele followed up with another tweet claiming that the nation's geothermal energy company had already dug a new well and was designing a "mining hub" around it.

"This is going to evolve fast!" the president promised.

How Pfizer and BioNTech made history with their vaccine

How were mRNA vaccines developed? Pfizer's Dr Bill Gruber explains the science behind this record-breaking achievement and how it was developed without compromising safety.

How Pfizer and BioNTech made history with their vaccine
Sponsored by Pfizer
  • Wondering how Pfizer and partner BioNTech developed a COVID-19 vaccine in record time without compromising safety? Dr Bill Gruber, SVP of Pfizer Vaccine Clinical Research and Development, explains the process from start to finish.
  • "I told my team, at first we were inspired by hope and now we're inspired by reality," Dr Gruber said. "If you bring critical science together, talented team members together, government, academia, industry, public health officials—you can achieve what was previously the unachievable."
  • The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine has not been approved or licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but has been authorized for emergency use by FDA under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to prevent COVID-19 for use in individuals 12 years of age and older. The emergency use of this product is only authorized for the duration of the emergency declaration unless ended sooner. See Fact Sheet: cvdvaccine-us.com/recipients.

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