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The veined octopus' coconut shelters may be first evidence of tool use in an invertebrate

December 15, 2009 |  4:51 pm

Biologists studying the habits of veined octopuses in the waters of Indonesia have noticed that the animal has a most unusual hobby: collecting discarded coconut shells and using them for shelter.

Beyond the fact that it’s hilarious to watch the octopuses slithering across the ocean floor dragging halved coconut shells and even assembling two of them to make a creative hiding spot (watch the embedded video above), it also could be the first evidence of tool use in an invertebrate animal.

According to the Associated Press, two Australian scientists -- Julian Finn, a research biologist at the museum who specializes in cephalopods, and Mark Norman of Museum Victoria in Melbourne -- observed the behavior in four of the veined octopuses during a series of dive trips in Indonesia between 1998 and 2008. Their findings were published this week in the journal Current Biology. "We were blown away," Norman told National Geographic of the strange discovery. "It was hard not to laugh underwater and flood your [scuba] mask."

Similar to hermit crabs, octopuses often use foreign objects as shelter, but the veined octopus takes the idea one step further. It's been observed preparing the shells by cleaning them out, carrying them long distances (up to 65 feet) and reassembling them as shelter in another place. 

Octopus2 The whole process is rather a tricky one; in order to move the shells, an octopus must first stack them, then wrap its body over them before "[trundling] along on its arm tips until a predator comes or there's a threat," Finn explained in an interview with Australia's ABC News.

That’s an example of tool use, which he says has never been recorded in invertebrates before.  And it's made all the more impressive, Norman told ABC News, because it "comes at a cost, carrying these shells in this awkward way and it's a fantastic example of complex behaviours in what we consider the lower life forms."

However, since there is ongoing debate in the scientific community about the definition of tool use in the animal kingdom, the findings about the octopus are not yet conclusive.

Regardless, we're still amazed at these clever octopuses, so smartly toting around their coconut shells like they're a hot new fashion accessory. (Prediction: Coconut-shell purses with ornate octopus clasps will be taking over the runways come fall.  Who wants to bet?)

-- Kelsey Ramos and Lindsay Barnett

Video: Associated Press

Photo: A veined octopus in its coconut-shell hiding place.  Credit: European Pressphoto Agency

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