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Contact chemoreception in multi-modal sensing of prey by Octopus


Octopuses have keen vision and are generally considered visual predators, yet octopuses predominantly forage blindly in nature, inserting their arms into crevices to search and detect hidden prey. The extent to which octopuses discriminate prey using chemo- versus mechano-tactile sensing is unknown. We developed a whole-animal behavioral assay that takes advantage of octopuses’ natural searching behavior to test their ability to discriminate prey from non-prey tastes solely via contact chemoreception. This methodology eliminated vision, mechano-tactile sensing and distance chemoreception while testing the contact chemosensory discriminatory abilities of the octopus arm suckers. Extracts from two types of prey (crab, shrimp) and three types of non-prey (sea star, algae, seawater) were embedded in agarose (to control for mechano-tactile discrimination) and presented to octopuses inside an artificial rock dome; octopuses reached their arms inside to explore its contents – imitating natural prey-searching behavior. Results revealed that octopuses are capable of discriminating between potential prey items using only contact chemoreception, as measured by an increased amount of sucker contact time and arm curls when presented with prey extracts versus non-prey extracts. These results highlight the importance of contact chemoreception in the multi-modal sensing involved in a complex foraging behavior.

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We thank Lane Kennedy, Michelle Guo, Abby Hotaling, Izzy Roberge, and Jenny Grossman for animal care. Staff at the Marine Resources Center at MBL assisted with water quality measurements, seawater system maintenance, and collection of food items. Thanks to Chuck Winkler of Aquatic Research Consultants for collection and transport of octopuses to Massachusetts. Gwen McManus drew Figure 1. We benefitted from several pertinent suggestions by the anonymous reviews.


Research was supported by Grant N00014-19-1-2495 from the Office of Naval Research. We are grateful to Program Managers Tom McKenna and Marc Steinberg for their interest and assistance in this project.

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Authors and Affiliations



RTH, KCB, ASM, SRM and JGB: designed the study. KS, JYC, GVW and KCB: conducted video analyses and data collection. KS and KCB: analyzed the data. KCB, KS, RTH and JGB: prepared the manuscript.

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Correspondence to K. C. Buresch.

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The authors declare no competing or financial interests.

Ethical approval

In the United States, cephalopods are not included in federal regulations that govern the use of animals in research laboratories. Consequently, no protocol or approval number was required for this study; however, the care of the animals in this study adhered to The Marine Biological Laboratory’s Cephalopod Care Policy.

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Buresch, K.C., Sklar, K., Chen, J.Y. et al. Contact chemoreception in multi-modal sensing of prey by Octopus. J Comp Physiol A 208, 435–442 (2022).

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  • Sensory perception
  • Octopus bimaculoides
  • Behavior
  • Foraging
  • Suckers