Highly-intelligent, octopuses have been observed opening containers, navigating mazes, and escaping from cages. Now, researchers have discovered a new intellectual feat for the octopus: tool use. Once the province of humans only, over the last 50 years researchers have discovered that many species—including primates, apes, and birds—employ tools, but the octopus is the first invertebrate.
The veined octopus has been observed spreading its body over an upright halved-coconut shell and walking the bowl with its eight legs rigid across the sea floor (video footage below). The octopus use the shell—or sometimes two shells—as shelter.
“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,” explains Mark Norman of the Museum Victoria in Australia.
An octopus at the National Zoo in Washington DC. Photo by: Tiffany Roufs.
Divers spent some 500 hours observing the behavior of twenty octopuses. They watched as some individuals would travel up to 20 meters awkwardly carrying stacked coconut shells with them. Researchers say another important fact of the octopuses’ unusual behavior was that it was crafting a tool not for food, but for periodic sanctuary.
Julian Finn, also of the Museum of Victoria, explained the behavior: “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. It was an extremely comical sight—I have never laughed so hard underwater.”
The researchers conclude in the paper, published in Current Biology that it is likely many species use tools “from insects to primates”, redefining once again the gap between humans, and in this case, octopuses.
Veined octopus using coconut shells as tools. Footage shot by Dr Julian Finn of Museum Victoria.
Citation: Finn, J.K., T. Tregenza and M.D. Norman. (2009) Defensive tool use in a coconut-carrying octopus, Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 23, R1069-R1070, 15 December 2009.
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