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The truth behind Paul's winning streak

By Derrick Ho and Liane Membis, CNN
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Octopus power too good to be true?
  • Experts say Paul the octopus has simply learned to recognize the German flag
  • Octopi are highly intelligent and can recognize shapes, patterns and even people
  • The creatures have keen eyesight but are colorblind

(CNN) -- Psychic or just plain phony? If there was any reason to believe that a crystal ball is hiding in that bulbous head of Paul the octopus, be warned: This article might just disappoint.


Some marine biologists and experts say it's more than likely that Paul doesn't have the gift of prophecy after all. What's more likely is that he's learned to recognize the German flag.

The 2-year-old octopus, who was born in England and now lives in a German aquarium, has become a World Cup phenomenon after correctly predicting the winners in all six of the German national team's matches.

"He has a run that many gamblers will only ever dream of," said Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium. "Paul is running a remarkable series of picks, but I honestly doubt that he has extrasensory abilities."

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During each prediction, two mussel-filled acrylic boxes labeled with a team's flag are lowered into his tank. Whichever box he chooses conveys the winning team.

The eight-tentacled oracle has been relatively consistent, plopping himself over the German box in his first few predictions. But he drew cries of despair from assembled watchers before the semifinal round, when he lingered over the box for the German flag before opting for the Spanish flag instead. Spain won the match 1-0.

For the final game of the World Cup, Paul picked Spain, again, to win against the Netherlands.

Octopi are among the most intelligent sea creatures in the world, said Mike Henley, an animal keeper at the Smithsonian National Zoo. Being keen learners and natural hunters, they quickly figure out how to maneuver and finagle objects in the wild in order to sustain themselves.

Yet when kept in captivity, as Paul has been, they must often be trained to accept prepared food, Henley said.

LaCasse said that at the New England Aquarium, which has a giant Pacific octopus, marine biologists usually give the animals Plexiglas boxes with different latches, lids and arrangements to see if they are able to retrieve their food.

And it's this ability to pick things up quickly that might explain why Paul is consistently picking the winning team.

"Looking at the series of predictions, it appears that this may have been a learned task," said Dr. Jean Boal, a marine biology professor at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.

Boal, who has worked with cephalopods for more than 20 years, believes that Paul's first pick may have just been pure luck and that he has been picking the German flag since his Euro 2008 days because the sea creature has learned to do so.

"It's a simple form of conceptual learning," she said.

By recognizing shapes and patterns, octopi will learn to gravitate toward them and even pick up skills, such as opening a jar or a box, that will lead them a food treat.

"They are very attentive to people. It's possible to train them, even unwittingly," Boal said.

But what about the times that he didn't pick the German flag?

Part of their learning process, Boal said, is that "once in a while, they might choose something else."

Then what about the red and yellow in the German and Spanish flags that Paul has been consistently attracted to?

There's no truth in that either, experts say. While octopi have excellent eyesight, they're colorblind.

"They don't have color vision, but they are able to see different shades of gray," said Richard Learner, curator of fishes at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland.

"If anything, you have to factor distance and his trained abilities into this whole mystery of Paul's psychic powers."

Paul's trainer, Oliver Walenciak, could not be immediately reached for comment.

Henley, the Smithsonian Zoo animal keeper, said that fans will have to wait until Sunday to see whether the octopus will be able to prove to the world his powers.

"It'll be amazing to see what he does next," Henley said. "He's just gotten lucky every time. We should take him to Vegas."

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