A MARINE MIND: Dr Alex Schnell

Dr Alex Schnell is a researcher, storyteller and National Geographic Explorer. Her research explores the intelligence of marine animals, mainly focusing on cuttlefish and octopus. As the Lead Storyteller and Producer of Secrets of the Octopus (National Geographic/Disney+) Schnell takes us on a deep dive into the world of these mesmerizing creatures, offering a unique perspective that not only changes how we view octopuses but also deepens our connection with the entire ocean and its myriad inhabitants. Schnell’s work encourages new understandings of intelligent life, reshapes how we think about diverse animal minds, and ultimately influences the way we treat animals.

“Our oceans need healing, they cover over 70% of our planet and yet there are converging crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and welfare risks to marine animals,” says Schnell. “But in order to heal our oceans we need to first be able to empathise with it. How do we empathise with a huge mass of water? We need to think about, and connect with, the critters it supports. The creatures of the sea, from the smallest fish to the largest whales are not so different from us. Many are vulnerable, possess intelligence, and have the capacity to experience emotions. Recognizing these traits helps dissolve the “otherness” of the ocean, reminding us of our shared vulnerability and interconnection.”

Photography by Alice Wesley-Smith

Where did your love of the ocean come from?
“I’ve always been intrinsically captivated by the ocean. Growing up by the sea on the eastern beaches of Sydney, I was fortunate to have the ocean as my playground. Every spare moment was spent exploring rock pools, observing their inhabitants, and being completely mesmerised by the intricate marine communities within them." 

What was the first marine animal you came face to face with?
“My earliest memory of a marine encounter was with a sea hare, a type of sea slug about the size of my five-year-old hand. It’s adorable antennae resembling bunny ears, fascinated me. I was so captivated by this creature that I spent hours observing its graceful movements through the water.” 

Did you have any mentors that encouraged your passion and curiosity?
“From a young age, I found immense inspiration in the lives and works of Dr Charles Darwin, Dr Jane Goodall, Valerie Taylor, Sylvia Earle, and Sir David Attenborough. Each of them was truly ahead of their time, courageously delving into the unknown realms of the natural world, undeterred by skeptics and postulating ideas that some thought ridiculous. Their methodical approach to observing animals, characterized by remarkable patience, unveiled incredible secrets about the natural world that have fundamentally changed our understanding of it. Darwin’s theory of evolution, Goodall’s groundbreaking research on chimpanzees, and Attenborough’s unparalleled ability to bring the wonders of the world into our homes, and Taylor and Earle's contributions to ocean conservation have not only expanded the horizons of scientific knowledge but also deeply influenced my own path. Their commitment to discovery and understanding the natural world inspired me to pursue biology, hoping to contribute to this legacy of exploration and respect for nature.”

You completed your studies in Marine Science at the University of Sydney and enrolled in a Ph.D program with the Marine Predator Research Group at Macquarie University, what came next?
“After completing my PhD at Macquarie University, where I delved into communication in giant Australian cuttlefish, my academic path took an unexpected turn. Initially, I had plans to study chameleon communication in South Africa. However, my fascination with the cognitive abilities of cuttlefish led me to pursue a postdoctoral position in France instead. There, I focused on researching memory in cuttlefish, specifically their capacity to recall personal experiences.

This intriguing line of study captured my interest so deeply that it propelled me to the Comparative Cognition Lab at the University of Cambridge. During my time there, I trained as a comparative psychologist, broadening my research to include self-control behaviours in both cuttlefish and corvids, such as crows and jays. This experience not only enriched my understanding of animal cognition but also intensified my interest in the minds of marine animals. 

I am now deeply invested in exploring the types of intelligent traits cephalopods possess that are comparable to those seen in large-brained vertebrates and whether they have the capacity to experience emotions. This exploration continues to shape my career in investigating animal minds.”

Tell us about how you became a National Geographic Explorer.
“Becoming a National Geographic Explorer was an unexpected and incredible honour. I was nominated for the 2023 Wayfinder award, a recognition given to trailblazers around the world for their exceptional contributions on both local and global scales. This award is nomination-based; you don’t apply, but instead someone anonymously puts forward your name, followed by a rigorous selection process. I remember when I first received the phone call – I initially thought it was a scam! Once I realised it was real, I was overwhelmed with emotion and even started to cry. It was a truly humbling and exhilarating moment that affirmed the impact of my work on animal minds.” 

You predominantly focus your research on cuttlefish and octopuses. What drew you to these creatures?
“What drew me to focus my research on cuttlefish and octopus was their remarkable place in the study of evolutionary biology, particularly regarding intelligence. Despite diverging from our evolutionary lineage over 550 million years ago, these cephalopods exhibit intelligent traits akin to those seen in large-brained vertebrates like chimpanzees, elephants and crows. Intriguingly, cuttlefish and octopus developed these cognitive traits without the same social pressures that typically influence the evolution of intelligence in vertebrates. This paradox suggests that intelligence can emerge through entirely different evolutionary pathways, making these creatures ideal subjects to explore the diverse manifestations and origins of cognitive abilities in the animal kingdom.”

What made you want to do a series on the octopus?
“I was motivated to create a series on the octopuses because they perfectly embody the balance between the alien and the familiar. We are currently experiencing what I like to call the “golden age of the octopus”, where public fascination with these enigmatic beings is at an all-time high. Despite this, the octopus was still a very misunderstood creature. I’m particularly drawn to highlighting underdogs and offering new dimensions and perspectives on characters that viewers might not typically consider. The octopus, with its unique behaviours and cognitive abilities, provides a compelling narrative that challenges our conventional views on intelligence and consciousness in the animal kingdom. Through this series, I aim to deepen appreciation for these extraordinary creatures and expand our understanding of their world.”

Secrets of the Octopus reveals the incredible superpowers and shapeshifting abilities of the octopus. Did you discover anything new and surreal whilst filming the series?
“During the filming of the series, we uncovered several new behaviours that have never been documented before. We observed the first instance of courtship behaviour between a male and female day octopus, marking a significant discovery in understanding their social dynamics. Additionally, we filmed a coconut octopus using a clam shell as a defensive shield against a mantis shrimp, demonstrating an innovative type of tool use. Another remarkable discovery involved a day octopus named Scarlett, who responded to human pointing when searching for food. This was the first documented instance of direct communication between a wild octopus and a human. Each of these discoveries not only enriched our series but also encouraged new lines of enquiry into the study of octopus behaviour and cognition.”

We shouldn’t play favourites. However, do you have a favourite species of octopus?
“Yes, my favourite octopus has to be the coconut octopus. Despite being only as small as a golf ball and able to sit comfortably in the palm of your hand, they exhibit outsized personalities and a remarkable level of sass. What truly fascinates me is their ingenuity in adapting to the barren sandy environments they inhabit. They use tools like coconut shells and clamshells not just for protection but as a mobile home, demonstrating incredible problem-solving abilities that defy their small size. Their boldness and cleverness make them standout in the octopus world.”

Do you have a favourite moment from the series?
“My favourite moment from the series was undoubtedly my evolving relationship with Scarlett, a day octopus. Initially she was quite timid, but she quickly grew to trust me. It was truly magical when she first reached out with her sucker-covered arm to shake my hand. Over time, she allowed me to swim alongside her while she was hunting, building a bond that felt almost like friendship. Each time I returned, she would greet me with a handshake, which was a heart-warming reminder of the connection we shared.” 

What can humans learn from octopuses?
“A key lesson from octopuses is to never judge a book by its cover. Though they look vastly different from us, octopuses display forms of intelligence that are surprisingly similar to our own. This teaches us to appreciate the complexity and diversity of intelligence in all life forms.”

What drives you to want to share your research?
“My drive to share my research stems from a desire to foster compassion and empathy for all animals, not just the ones that are traditionally seen as ‘furry’ and ‘cute.’ By exploring and revealing the complex minds of creatures like octopuses, I hope to break down the barriers of ‘otherness’. Understanding their sophisticated behaviours and cognitive abilities can help people feel a connection to these seemingly alien creatures, cultivating a sense of empathy for even the most distance of Earth’s inhabitants.”

What advice would you give someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps?
“My advice for anyone looking to follow in my footsteps is to begin by fostering your curiosity. Dive deep into your interests, even those that may not align directly with mainstream job markets. This can open doors to a rewarding and enlightening journey, ultimately leading to meaningful career. I want to emphasize the importance of passion, perseverance, and curiosity ins science. These qualities are crucial because the path isn’t always smooth; setbacks such as grant rejections and job challenges are part of the process. Remember, it’s your passion for your work that will continually propel you forward, helping you to rebound from each setback. Let your enthusiasm be your guide and embrace the challenges as opportunities to grow and innovate in your field.”


Secrets of the Octopus streaming now on Disney+

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