COCONUT VEINED OCTOPUS
©Roger Steene photo
©Matt Kaplan for National Geographic News
Octopuses have been discovered tip-toeing with coconut-shell halves suctioned to their undersides, then reassembling the halves and disappearing inside for protection or deception, a study discovered in 2009.
Tool use, once thought to be a uniquely human behavior, is seen as a sign of considerable mental sophistication among nonhuman animals.
It’s been known for years now that chimpanzees use whole “tool kits,” that some dolphins attach sponges to their beaks for fishing, and that crows fish for insects using sticks and leaves, for example.
Even so, the octopus discovery stands apart.
“An octopus without shells can swim away much faster by jet propulsion,” said biologist Julian Finn of Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. “But on endless mud seafloor, where are you fleeing to?” In other words, a coconut-carrying octopus may be slow, but it’s always got somewhere to hide.
So what makes the veined octopus’s behavior “tool use,” versus, say, the hermit crab’s use of seashells as armor?
Worn nearly constantly, a hermit crab’s adopted shell isn’t considered a tool, because it’s always useful. Tools, by definition, provide no benefit until they’re used for a very specific purpose—showing that the animal is capable of what you might call advance planning.
The octopus’s coconut carrying qualifies as tool use, Finn said, because the shells provide only “delayed benefits.”
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