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A tool-wielding octopus? This invertebrate builds armor from coconut halves

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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octopus tool use coconutA clever octopus made headlines earlier this year after it swiftly disassembled part of its tank at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium in California. But out in the open ocean its relative, the veined octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus), has upped the cephalopod intelligence quotient by using coconut shells as tools.

The dexterous octopuses were observed stockpiling discarded coconut halves, carrying them (with some difficulty), and later using the oversize pieces to build a protective armored covering, reports a team of researchers in Australia and the U.K. in a paper published online today in Current Biology.

But might the undulating invertebrates just be making use of found objects like an ant transporting food on a leaf or a hermit crab crawling into an empty shell?

These are true tool users, the researchers assert, placing veined octopuses in the rare ranks of birds, chimpanzees, humans and a few other mammals that put objects to more complex use. The invertebrates indeed purposefully collect, transport and then assemble the coconut shells for deployment only when needed (see video below). 

"There is a fundamental difference between picking up a nearby object and putting it over your head as protection versus collecting, arranging, transporting (awkwardly), and assembling portable armor as required," Mark Norman, of the Museum Victoria in Australia and paper co-author, said in a prepared statement. "The fact that the shell is carried for future use rather than as part of a specific task differentiates this behavior from other examples of object manipulation by octopuses, such as rocks being used to barricade lair entrances," the researchers wrote in their paper.

And even though they boast eight flexible legs and handy suction cups, the octopuses face challenges in carrying these coconut halves. To do so, they flip the shells—which are larger than the octopuses’ bodies—so that the open side is up and grasp it underneath with the upper part of their legs, holding it above the ground and walking stiffly on the soft substrate—an "ungainly" process the researchers call "stilt walking." 

Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of this behavior is that carrying the shells is not an immediate advantage—but rather a burden and even a danger, leaving the animal more exposed to predators. But the risk seems to be worth the reward.

"While I have observed and videoed octopuses hiding in shells many times, I never expected to find an octopus that stacks multiple coconut shells and jogs across the seafloor carrying them," Julian Finn, of the Museum Victoria in Australia and also a co-author, said in a prepared statement.

After spending some 500 diver-hours over the course of 10 years, researchers off the coast of Indonesia observed several veined octopuses engaging in this behavior, with four instances of the animals carrying the coconut shells as far as 20 meters.

"I could tell that the octopus, busy manipulating coconut shells, was up to something, but I never expected it would pick up the stacked shells and run away," Finn said. "It was an extremely comical sight—I have never laughed so hard underwater."

Building an octopus’ garden in the shade: Octopuses collect coconut shells and use them to create protective armor

 


Credit: Julian Finn et al.,
Current Biology, 14 December 2009

Image from video of tool-using octopus courtesy of Julian Finn et al. Current Biology, 14 December 2009

 

 

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  1. 1. hellblade 2:35 pm 12/14/2009

    i for one welcome our new octopian overlords

    Link to this
  2. 2. Bops 3:28 pm 12/14/2009

    How about some pictures? This is so cool.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Philtron 4:03 pm 12/14/2009

    I agree!! Pics and vids! This article is so bare-bones when it could be the most interesting part of the work day.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Philtron 4:56 pm 12/14/2009

    update: NS has a video of it:
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18281-octopuses-use-coconut-shells-as-portable-shelters.html

    Link to this
  5. 5. scienCe freaK! 7:50 pm 12/14/2009

    HHAHAHMWAHHAHAHHA u are HILARIOUS!!! but i totally agree with ur statement..

    Please do not hide your wisdom.

    Link to this
  6. 6. JamesDavis 7:31 am 12/15/2009

    If they could walk on land, and since they are smarter than most humans, they would make great business partners. I can even see one piloting a space ship or a submarine.

    Link to this
  7. 7. butterflyfish 1:11 pm 12/15/2009

    Guys, there’s a video link in the sidebar.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Albert Reingewirtz 5:58 pm 12/15/2009

    Some scientists are anxious to find a subject for a paper. An octopus using coconut shells for shelter. Whoa! That is a earth shaking finding! What next? Hermit crabs using shells to protect their soft abdomen? In fact, the Hermit crab grabs anemones, plants them on the shell he walks around with. The result the hermit crab uses biological warfare to defend himself with the stinging power of the anemones. Which one deserve to be called a tool user, the octopus or the Hermit crab? Get this! Once he outgrows his protective snail shell he finds a bigger one and transfer his anemone garden to the new shell. The funny thing is that CNN and all the media jumped on "this discovery" including Scientific American. Very funny!

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  9. 9. upshaw 8:49 pm 12/15/2009

    Exhibiting this sort of uncharacteristic behavior (using a shell rather than their own natural predator defenses) indicates they are under great stress. Maybe too many of them have been turned into sushi and they are understandably paranoid. This in sad, not funny.

    Link to this
  10. 10. rock johny 2:27 pm 12/18/2009

    haha mmmm Sushi!!

    Link to this
  11. 11. Randallstien 6:55 pm 12/18/2009

    At last! A sea creature with a sense of humor!

    Link to this
  12. 12. Grasshopper1 7:35 pm 12/18/2009

    In the video, the octopus seems to "walk" along the sea-floor. Could they walk on land?
    In the science based series "The Future is Wild", cephalopods have evolved to be land creatures 200 million years from now. Could that be reality?

    Link to this

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