Octopus Tool Use

Common octopus Octopus vulgaris. Credit: OpenCage Systems.

Common octopus Octopus vulgaris. Credit: OpenCage Systems

According to St. Amant and Horton (2008, cited by Bentley-Condit & Smith), tool use can be defined as the use of an object to either alter the physical properties of another one or to mediate the flow of information between the user and its environment (non exhaustive definition). It has been observed and studied in various vertebrate species, perhaps most typically in primates, passerines and corvids. Among the invertebrates catalogued as tool users, which include several ant species, cephalopods seem to be only “borderline” users. Nonetheless, the internet contains some compelling videos showing octopuses with coconut shells:

Just look at this gorgeous guy! It almost looks like he’s dancing when he is carrying the coconut shell – a form of locomotion named ‘stilt-walking’ (other examples can be found here and here).

In 2009, researchers Finn, Tregenza and Norman published a paper on “Defensive Tool Use in a Coconut Carrying Octopus”. They reported repeated sightings of soft-sediment dwelling octopuses acquiring coconut shell halves and assembling them as a shelter. They said that the use of objects as shelter isn’t always considered tool use, especially when it is constantly operative (think of hermit crabs). However, the fact that the individuals they observed carry coconut shells in a clumsy fashion for future use and that they are able to correctly assemble two halves to produce a single effective tool when needed defines their behaviour as such.

In my opinion, there are many questions that arise from these findings. For instance: Is it a sign that octopuses are, in fact, more cognitively sophisticated than previously thought? Are soft-sediment dwelling octopuses the only ones concerned? Do other cephalopods collect and use objects? How can we further investigate this topic?

If any case, this information helps to describe the continuity in tool use between animals and to confirm, once again, that this type of behaviour is not a staple of humans.

Finally, according to the following video, some octopuses seem to have a thing for camcorders. I wonder why these objects are so attractive to them. Are these individuals the hoarders of the underwater world? And also, should camcorders be, in these cases, regarded as tools or rather as toys?

This last video can also be found in this article.

References:

Bentley-Condit, V. K., & Smith, E. O. (2009). Animal tool-use: current definitions and an updated comprehensive catalog. Behaviour, 147, 185-221. doi: 10.1163/000579509X12512865686555

Finn, J. K., Tregenza, T., & Norman, M. D. (2009). Defensive tool use in a coconut-carrying octopus. Current Biology, 19(23), R1069-R1070. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.10.052

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