Octopus Architects

Octopus Architects

Julie Leibach
Published: 12/16/2009

What's got eight legs and builds its house out of coconut shells? No, not a spider with a hankering for milk. It's Indonesia's veined octopus, and it's the first invertebrate on record to use tools, according to an article in Current Biology.

Researchers diving off the coast of Indonesia studied veined octopuses for nearly a decade and observed several that traveled "considerable distances" (up to about 65 feet) carrying stacked coconut shell halves to be assembled later as shelter.

But hermit crabs hoist shells around, you might say. Aren't they wielding tools? According to the authors, "a tool provides no benefit until it is used for a specific purpose." A hermit crab essentially occupies its shell all of the time--a simple behaviour not typically regarded as tool use. Veined octupuses, on the other hand, are exposed to potential predators until they find a place to set up house.

"Ultimately, the collection and use of objects by animals is likely to form a continuum  stretching from insects to primates," write the researchers. Still, "the discovery of this octopus tiptoeing across the sea floor with its prized coconut shells suggests that even marine invertebrates engage in behaviours that we once thought the preserve of humans." Better grab your coconuts while you can.

Still not convinced that cephalopods have got more going on in that noggin' than a propensity toward locomotion? Read about a Rubik's Cube-solving octopus in Audubon's One Picture.