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Virtual Exhibit at the Sesnon Gallery: What makes us human? 

Humans are often defined by their intelligence - their ability to harness their disproportionally large brains to "think about alternative futures and make deliberate choices accordingly". This ability has led humans to think of themselves as unique from other animals. Often the only way for us to empathize with other animals is when we recognize/witness our likeness in them--proof of that animal's intelligence. We often seek to assess the intelligence of animals using tests that fit our rigid mold of enlightenment. Yet, these wild creatures are each adapted to their own measure of excellence- what they need to survive. 


How shall we measure intelligence in the northern elephant seal, who swims halfway to Japan and back to the same exact location each year? Shall we withhold compassion, moderation, and protection for those animals that fail to meet our own standards of intelligence? I work at the interface of art and science to inspire awe, admiration, and respect for the creatures which occupy our oceans. To inspire the belief that these organisms and ecosystems deserve our care and compassion.

It seems that the focus should not be on the extent to which these animals can conform to our own understanding of intelligence, but the extent to which we can learn from them. My art and research illustrate incredible animal behaviors which I believe can teach us lessons about ourselves and at the very least, inspire us about the many ways to be.

This multimedia essay follows my personal journey through scientific inquiry and artistic expression to inspire awe and respect for the unique intelligence of the creatures which inhabit the underwater realm. I will go through four anecdotes, retracing my development as a scientist and artist, and show you how I became inspired by the intelligence of each of these incredible creatures.

the Dolphin

As a young girl, I was first inspired by the intelligence of the ocean's creatures when I was given the opportunity to "train" a dolphin in the Ocean Explorers program at Long Marine Lab at UC Santa Cruz. We held target sticks above and below the surface of the water and watched as the animal diligently followed a path around the pool. This was such a simple demonstration from an animal capable of so much more, but it was enough to spark my interest and fuel my thirst to learn more.


Meeting Primo for the first time during Ocean Explorers Camp NMFS 19590


Many years later, as a PhD student, I have had the chance to work directly with Primo and to examine this animal's incredible anatomy, physiology, and neurobiology.  My love for underwater photography combined with my research when I was able to photograph Primo underwater during a trial where we measured his blood oxygenation during exercise.


This photo was featured in his obituary here:

Primo outfitted in his custom O’Neill heart rate monitor surf suit. (NMFS 19590)

the Octopus

I first met the octopus in an undergraduate 

research position volunteering for a professor

named Dr. Roy Caldwell. We would sit in quiet

wonder, observing these mysterious animals for hours. 


I N T E L L I G E N C E   A S   P R E D A T O R

My project was to observe the feeding behavior of these

creatures. We would feed them various prey items and watched what happened. The octopus would handle its snail prey in exactly the same way each time, by drilling a small hole in the same location, taking strategic advantage of the structural weakness of the snail's shell.


A lethal blue ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena lunulata) in the Caldwell lab. 


Here are two Littorina littorea snails with matching drill holes, next to a photo of the octopus, Abdopus aculeatus, which ate the snails.


I N T E L L I G E N C E   A S   P R E Y


I also assisted with a study by a graduate student who was looking directly at the brain of octopuses, and specifically at their ability to feel and adjust to the sensation of pain or fear. She induced an animal to autotomize (drop) an arm and then looked at the sensitivity of that brain region to sensation. Because octopuses are so neurally and behaviorally complex, it has been hypothesized that they might experience pain similar to vertebrates. What she discovered was not a stereotyped response to pain, but instead a different and complex response to the injury, which included hypersensitivity and protectivity. If we are to define intelligence and empathy by recognizing human-like pain in others, where does this leave us in the case of the highly intelligent octopus?

Go to this link to read more about the study:

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I was so moved by the complexity and extent of the octopus brain that I used it as inspiration for two woodburnings on custom hollow wooden surfboards crafted by Ventana Surfboards & Supplies. The first woodburning shows the delicate nervous system of Octopus vulgaris, which is unique and unparalleled among invertebrates and even rivals that of dogs in terms of the number of neurons (500,000,000!). Each sucker is innervated with 10,000 neurons which collectively allow the arms to think, feel, and taste independently of the octopus's brain. Its arms may work in tandem or independently of its centralized brain.

My take on _The Mind of an Octopus__•_•_