16 December 2009

Octopus tools

Early last year, I wrote about Louis the Octopus who was attached to his toy Mr Potato Head.

Museum Victoria, based in Melbourne, has researched and reported about the Veined Octopus using tools. From MV news
Tool use in Veined Octopus
15 December, 2009

Click here to view larger image.
Veined Octopus in coconut shell shelter
Image: Roger Steene
Source: Courtesy of Current Biology

Museum Victoria’s Julian Finn and Mark Norman have recorded the first case of tool use – sophisticated behaviour generally limited to mammals and birds – in an invertebrate.

The Veined Octopus, Amphioctopus marginatus, uses foreign objects for shelter, which is common in octopuses and is not itself considered tool use. However the Veined Octopus goes a step further and prepares, manipulates and carries coconut shells up to 20 metres to reassemble its shelter elsewhere.

Julian and Mark spent more than 500 hours diving in Indonesian waters to observe and film these animals. They watched octopuses dig out coconut shells from the ocean floor, empty shells with jets of water, stack two empty shells hollow-side up, and carry the shells in a unique gait they call ‘stilt-walking’. This series of actions are among the most complex ever recorded in an octopus.

The Veined Octopus probably evolved this behaviour using clam shells as shelter. However once humans began discarding large numbers of coconut shells, they inadvertently created a steady supply of lightweight octopus tools.

Julian and Mark’s paper ‘Defensive tool use in a coconut-carrying octopus’, was co-authored by Tom Tregenza. It was published in the journal Current Biology on 15 December.
I am hoping that one day, scientists will discover a species of octopus that build houses, exchange some form of money for food, goods or services, and keep crabs as pets. Still, many will continue to end up barbecued.

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