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Student 'Cephalover,' Blogs About Tentacled Species

Focus is on octopus research and evolution (Brett Favre notwithstanding)

Release Date: August 13, 2010

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Call him "Octopus Man." UB student Mike Lisieski celebrates his "many-armed love affair" with octopuses on his "cephalove" blog.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Mike Lisieski, a University at Buffalo psychology major, plans to earn an MD/PhD in neuroscience but for now he appears to be the web's chief "cephalover," using his blog cephalove to carefully analyze research about octopuses and related animals and post stunning photographs of them.

He describes his blog, which he started in May, as "documenting my intellectual love affair with the biology and psychology of our many-armed friends."

Asked about recent attempts by humans to use this highly intelligent species to make sports predictions (for example, predicting World Cup victors and Brett Favre's on-and-off-again retirement plans) Lisieski (pronounced Li-SHES-ki) thinks those efforts "say a lot more about people than they do about cephalopods, but if it generates more public interest in them, I can't complain."

Topics Lisieski, a Pennsylvania native, has tackled on the cephalove blog range from memory, observation and consciousness in cephalopods and the neuromuscular dynamics of octopus arm movements, to exquisite images of the suckers on octopus arms and their color- and texture-changing skin.

"The reason I decided to do this blog was because there wasn't much serious discussion about cephalopods on the Internet," said Lisieski, who will be a senior this fall at UB.

"There were a lot of sites where people wrote about cephalopods, saying, 'oh this is cute' and 'isn't this cool' and there are a lot of factoids," he says. "But there wasn't a lot of accessible information about research on cephalopods," he says.

His readers are increasingly diverse, but many are marine scientists and/or science writers; one is an artist who draws cephalopods.

Lisieski attributes his interest in octopus, squid and cuttlefish partly to PSY 647 "Theories of Learning," a UB Department of Psychology course taught by Assistant Professor Micheal Dent, which he took last spring in UB's College of Arts and Sciences.

"That class got me interested in comparative psychology, particularly as it relates to learning," he says.

While studying for that course, Lisieski came across research discussing observational learning in which a group of octopuses was trained to 'attack' a red ball and to leave a white ball alone, while a second group of octopuses watched. Later, the members of the second group attacked the "correct" ball, demonstrating that they had learned just by watching the first group.

"It was surprising to find this ability in the octopus, which is generally a very solitary animal that seems to have little reason to be able to learn socially," says Lisieski.

Recently, he discussed in his blog research on the grasping movements of octopuses.

"The octopus arm is flexible," he says, "it has no bones. But when it grabs something, the arm stiffens and bends, forming a joint that works like an elbow. They use it like a lever to retrieve an object, but then the joint disappears and the arm is flexible again."

That behavior, so similar to the behavior of humans, is intriguing, Lisieski says, because it shows up in two species that are so distinct.

"It's a pretty striking example of convergent evolution," he says. "That's when similar behavior or features evolve in two entirely distinct species. If we can discover principles of behavior common to both cephalopods and people, then it's likely that they are close to universal principles of behavior because it means they worked well enough to have evolved independently more than once."

Lisieski, who has loved animals since he was a child growing up in Irwin, near Pittsburgh, is an avid fan of zoos and aquariums. He says he is especially fond of "Twister," the giant Pacific octopus, which is among the world's largest octopus species, currently residing in the Niagara Falls Aquarium.

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Ellen Goldbaum
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