You may have seen the recent photos of a mischievous octopus stealing a camera, turning the tables by snapping a few shots of the photographer.1 While it isn’t known exactly why the octopus chose to nab the cam, not all instances of octopuses grabbing objects have such unclear motivations. The veined octopus (also known as the coconut octopus) is well known for swiping large seashells and coconut husks to use as defensive tools.
Defensive tool use in octopuses is an interesting phenomenon from the perspective of invertebrate cognition. Tool use is a cognitive behavior normally associated with advanced primates like chimpanzees, or crows and parrots, who are also famous for their high intelligence. But octopuses boast impressive intelligence levels too, and are routinely documented exhibiting impressively clever behaviors.
In 2009, the Current Biology journal published a paper2 by researchers Julian Finn, et al., about this species of octopus and how it uses shells to set up protective shelters.
The paper’s summary:
The use of tools has become a benchmark for cognitive sophistication. Originally regarded as a defining feature of our species, tool-use behaviours have subsequently been revealed in other primates and a growing spectrum of mammals and birds. Among invertebrates, however, the acquisition of items that are deployed later has not previously been reported. We repeatedly observed soft-sediment dwelling octopuses carrying around coconut shell halves, assembling them as a shelter only when needed. Whilst being carried, the shells offer no protection and place a requirement on the carrier to use a novel and cumbersome form of locomotion — ‘stilt-walking’.
See one of these shell-stealing octopuses in action in this video by Earth Touch News:
This article was written by Amanda Pachniewska, founder & editor of AnimalCognition.org
1- Brian Koerber, “Octopus steals GoPro, snaps photos of filmmaker”
2- Julian K. Finn, Tom Tregenza, Mark D. Norman
Defensive tool use in a coconut-carrying octopus