Planet of the Octopuses: What Animal Species Is Most Likely to Rise Up and Overthrow Humans?

It's not something we need to worry too much about, but....
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It's not something we need to worry too much about, but....


Matt Berridge is trying to destroy us all.

Well, maybe not. But he’s doing something crazy, that much is clear. A wildlife caretaker at the Toronto Zoo, Berridge is giving orangutans iPads. Not just for fun, either; it’s for learning. The program he uses, “Apps for Apes” is currently in 13 zoos and animal centers across the world and is exactly what it sounds like. The program’s goals, according to the official website, are “1. To provide stimulating enrichment & immediate gratification for the orangutans using iPads, 2. To raise awareness among zoo visitors of the critical need to protect orangutans in the wild, and 3. To promote the conservation efforts of Orangutan Outreach.” It sounds nice, right? But can we really trust orangutans with some of the same tools we’re using to mold young elementary minds in schools across the country?

“Orangutans learn by watching and imitation,” says Berridge. “Applying [observational learning] to an iPad and apps I think has a great potential for opening the door to simple communication and learning.”

“I don’t think there would be any reason for [dolphins] to become anything like us. It would honestly be a step down,” says Dr. Lori Marino, laughing. “It really would be.”

Oh, Berridge, they have you so fooled, don’t they?

What the Toronto Zoo, and each of its 12 counterparts participating in the “Apps for Apes” program doesn’t seem to realize is that giving orangutans iPads can be a terrible idea. What if orangutans are quietly plotting the takeover of Earth, and want only to destroy us? Yes, the future is bleak for humanity if people like Berridge and his fellow caretakers continue to teach animals how to succeed and adapt in our modern world.

Like me, you may be worried that the orangutan’s newfound use of technology could lead to an uprising, an ape revolution if you will, as prophesied in the popular Planet of the Apes franchise. Well, according to Berridge, you can stop worrying.

“Orangutans as a species are believed to be 15 million years old. They evolved without human interference up until 200 years ago,” Berridge says. “I believe they had a greater understanding of how their ecosystem could meet their needs and functioned very efficiently. If humans hadn’t made such a negative impact on their ecosystem, things would probably carry on for millions more.”

So maybe the time has come and gone for the orangutan’s chance to rule. But what about the 10 million other species on Earth? What animal, given some time to evolve, and barring human interference, could be the next us? What species could form something that we today would recognize as an intelligent society?

Dolphins and porpoises, of the order Cetacea, are already considered to be the second most intelligent species on the planet. In a 2004 study, Dr. Lori Marino, neuroscientist and marine mammal expert from Emory University, found that dolphins and porpoises have encephalization levels (a rough estimate of intelligence that compares brain mass to an organism’s total body mass) below only modern humans, and above any other mammal.

“Bottle nosed dolphins have an encephalization of about four, so their brains are about four times the size you would expect for their body size. The highest encephalization in dolphins goes up to about five,” Marino says. “So they’re pretty close to us, yeah.” For comparison, human encephalization is approximately 7.5.

What if dolphins aren’t the cute, playful sea mammals we think they are? What if they’re more than just tools for our amusement at aquatic parks, a species of super geniuses, biding their time, waiting for us to show a sign of weakness? You guys do what you want: I’ll be over here, finding a way off of this liquid planet.

“I don’t think anyone will take our place. Especially not dolphins,” Marino says. “The reason is: Dolphins have been successful as a very smart species, or rather, an order of mammals, for tens of millions of years. If we disappear, the only thing that really would happen is that they would be free to continue their lives. I don’t think there would be any reason for them to become anything like us. It would honestly be a step down,” she says, laughing. “It really would be.”

In Marino’s study, she found that dolphins developed their high encephalization level between 60 million and 20 million years ago. So, in other words, dolphins have had, at the very least, 20 million years to run this town, and either have had no reason to do it, or have chosen not to.

Octopuses, squids, cuttlefish. The names evoke terror in humans across the planet. They have a lot of arms, most of them do that ink thing, and they look sticky. So sure, there’s an intimidation factor when you’re talking about cephalopods. But could they take over? Dr. Russell Burke, a Hofstra University biology professor specializing in ecology and evolution, has a few predictions that’ll make your highly encephalized brain spin.

“[Cephalopods] have a lot of the characteristics that we think of as being important in humans,” Burke says. “So first, they have relatively large brains. Relative to their body size; they have large brains.” Check.

“They have big eyes, connected with the big brain, which means they work in the same kind of world that we do,” he adds. “They’re large eyes, they’re very complex eyes, and they work much like ours.” You read it here first: Cephalopods have the perfect eyes for world domination.

But that’s not all. “You make a big fuss about opposable thumbs, imagine if we had eight of them,” Burke says, though I’d really rather not. “Cephalopods clearly manipulate objects, they clearly use tools. They don’t build things, aside from shelters, but its certainly imaginable that given the time, given some other factors, those kinds of things could happen.”

“If a cephalopod learns something, tries some trick and it works and another cephalopod sees it? I mean, they definitely learn by watching each other, so if those pattern behaviors developed, it could pass among groups very quickly,” Burke says. So the only thing stopping octopuses from destroying us is a lack of leadership? We’re just hoping that an octopus version of Ben Franklin, or perhaps a squid Napoleon, isn’t born?

“It begs the question, Why haven’t they [evolved more], you know? I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe they’re waiting ‘til we’re not watching,” says Burke, laughing a terrified laugh in his office (which, mind you, does not contain any cephalopods). “But anybody who’s kept an octopus in an aquarium can tell you, they’re constantly reaching out of the tank and feeling stuff. They’ll pull a filter into the water; anything they can reach will be pulled in and played with. So I’m buying cephalopods.”

OK, so cephalopods seem like a good option. They resemble what we imagine when we think about aliens, they have the tentacles, the big eyes, the brains; they’re looking like a safe bet for next in line. But what else has the potential to rule?

“Take humans out of the equation and we are left with a world that is changing at a much slower rate,” says Ashley Bennison, an evolutionary and behavioral ecology post grad student from the University of Exeter in Cornwall, England. “In a much slower world I would expect the rise of the herbivores at first, only to be capitalized by carnivores later on. Bears, cats, and dogs—already incredibly clever animals—could potentially become fantastically efficient predators capitalizing on the much higher numbers of available prey.” What I’m hearing is that, with more prey in a world without humans, large carnivores could have the chance to sit back, relax, and focus less on eating and more on developing societies.

“This could, in effect, lead to many clever animals starting to converge on our niche, if you will,” Bennison says. “So my vote? Probably the bears. Those guys are awesome.”

Go online and do what I did: re-watch some old episodes of Care Bears. The show takes on a whole new meaning if you imagine it’s all taking place in a not-so-distant future where nearly all humans are extinct and bears rule the Earth.

“Raccoons. Sometimes you think raccoons are just going to take over the world,” says Marino. “Those kinds of animals that have to deal with the same pressures as humans, especially in the urban environment. I think they’re facing a lot of pressure to improve selection.”

Jason G. Goldman, author of the Scientific American blog, The Thoughtful Animal, agrees with Marino’s sentiment, stating, “It’s certainly possible that something like a rat or raccoon could eventually evolve human-level intelligence.”

But Goldman thinks another animal would do it before raccoons. “What species could achieve human-like language, human-like teaching, and human-like tool use after a few million years of evolution?” he asks. “The candidate species might be chimpanzees or bonobos, or dolphins and whales, or elephants, or ants. Each of these species is already part of the way there for each of these elements. Notice that each of the candidate species is social—I think this is key.”

WELL IF THE DINOSAURS hadn’t gone extinct, would they have become us? The answer, of course, is no,” Marino says. “But a lot of people assume that one of them would have eventually gone bipedal, put on a suit, and went to work on Wall Street.” Marino and many other scientists believe that human-like society is not necessary for many already-successful species, so it will not happen.

There really is no absolute answer to a question like this. We have the candidates and the potential, but there are many factors that could keep anything from taking our place. Setting up the “no more humans” scenario, though, was necessary because we are wreaking havoc on our planet and every species inhabiting it.

“We’re in a mass extinction event,” Marino says. “There’s no hope for adaptation out of this situation for these animals. They’re going out. We’re kind of like that comet that hit the dinosaurs, only we’re a comet that’s hitting every day.”