Planet of the Octopuses

Evolution chain cartoon


Matt Berridge is trying to destroy us all.

Well, maybe not. But he’s doing something crazy. A Wildlife Caretaker at the Toronto Zoo, Berridge is giving Orangutans iPads. Not just for fun, either. It’s for learning. The program, “Apps for Apes” is currently in 13 zoos and animal centers across the world and is exactly what it sounds like. From the official website, the program’s goals 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 our precious apps?

“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.”

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

Apps for Apes Toronto Zoo

One of those radical human-hating Orangutans, playing with an iPad just a little too innocently to be believed. Photo Courtesy of Toronto Zoo

What the Toronto Zoo, and each of its 12 counterparts participating in “Apps for Apes” don’t realize, is that giving Orangutans iPads is 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 Matt Berridge and his friends at the Toronto Zoo continue to care for animals and teach them to succeed and adapt in our modern world.

So, 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 highly scientifically accurate “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,” says Berridge. “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 other 10 million species on Earth? What animal, given a few million years of evolution, and without human interference, could be the next us? What species could form something that we today would recognize as an intelligent society? Consider the possibilities.

Dolphins & Porpoises

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) below only modern humans, and above any other mammal.

“Bottle nosed dolphins have an encephalization of about 4, so their brains are about 4 times the size you would expect for their body size. The highest encephalization in dolphins goes up to about 5,” says Marino. “So they’re pretty close to us, yeah.” For comparison, human encephalization is approximately 7.5.

So, what if dolphins aren’t the cute, playful sea mammals we think they are? What if they’re a species of super geniuses, just 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 the planet.

“I don’t think anyone will take our place. Especially not dolphins,” says Marino. “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. Oh, so now dolphins are too good for our slot. The elitist dolphins don’t want to be us now. Well you know what, dolphins? Fine. If you’re going to choose a life of eating, playing, and swimming naked in the ocean: so be it. We don’t have time for things like that; we work for a living.

Cephalopods: Octopus, squids, etc.

Octopuses, squids, cuttlefish. The mere 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. So first, they have relatively large brains. Relative to their body size; they have large brains,” says Burke. So check off the brain size thing.

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

“You make a big fuss about opposable thumbs, imagine if we had eight of them,” says Burke.

I’d really rather not imagine that.

“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.” Good God, cephalopods are primed to take over.

Octopus uses coconut gif

Sweet Christ, this is terrifying

“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.” 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. Till 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.”

Okay, so cephalopods seem like a good option. They look like 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.” So, with a larger amount of 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,” says Bennison. “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, it 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 and the Rest

Raccoon Horse Cartoon

“Raccoons, sometimes you think raccoons are just going to take over the world,” says Dr. Marino. I for one have spent many a sleepless night tossing and turning over the thought of futuristic raccoon overlords.

“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.”

However, Goldman thinks something could 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? 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.”

So, what’s the answer?

“Well if the dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct, would they have become us? The answer of course is no,” says Dr. Marino.  “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. Namely: us. Setting up the “no more humans” scenario was necessary because we are wreaking havoc on our planet and every species inhabiting it.

“We’re in a mass extinction event,” says Marino. “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.”


 -The above article was named one of the top three online student feature articles in the nation, and a first place Region 1 Mark of Excellence award winner by the Society of Professional Journalists-