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Monday Reads: The Octopus Coconut Walk Edition

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14 December 2009, 5:11 PM
A tale of octopus and coconut shells
Octopus merrily scampering along with coconut shell. Photo: BBC.

While Copenhagen and climate change are crowding the headlines at the moment, Monday Reads is breaking ranks to bring you news of a lighter—but we hope just as interesting—variety. Tool-use was once thought to be the exclusive realm of humans, but one by one other species have been added to the club—and now we welcome the octopi.

Researchers from Australia’s Museum Victoria observed the veined octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus) digging up coconut shells from the ocean floor, specifically to use as a protective cover. Not wanting to be left empty suckered when they needed to hide and there was not a shell to be found, the octopus jauntily scamper around with oversized shells in tow. See for yourself (fast forward to 0:50 for the goods; stay until 2:05 to experience the sensation of being enveloped by an octopus):

As the scuba diving Dr. Julian Finn, part of the research team, told BBC, "I almost drowned laughing when I saw this the first time." Of this coconut shell walk, Dr. Mark Norman of Museum Victoria adds, "it comes down to amazing dexterity and co-ordination of eight arms and several hundred suckers."

The shells provide an important defense for the octopus. Dr. Norman goes on to explain:

If they [the octopus] are buried loose in mud without a shell, any predator coming along can just scoop them up. And they are pure rump steak, a terrific meat supply for any predator.

Interestingly, the study remarks on how humans have likely had a hand in influencing this behavior:

The researchers think that the creatures would initially have used large bivalve shells as their haven, but later swapped to coconuts after our insatiable appetite for them meant their discarded shells became a regular feature on the sea bed.

Octopus are now the first cephalopods among a growing number of clever tool-users, enjoying the company of (among others) elephants who use branches to swat away flies, sea otters who use rocks to crack open delicious clams, and humans who use keyboards to pound out blog posts.

Octopus are known to be highly intelligent and curious, and are the source of numerous fascinating stories. We’ve previously heard of octopus sneakily helping themselves to a buffet of their fellow aquarium residents, octopus flooding aquariums, and octopus having distinct personalities. In fact, this isn’t the first run-in octopus have had with coconuts: the veined octopus is also known as the coconut octopus, as they've been seen tip-toeing around the ocean floor in a bi-pedal fashion with their six other arms balled up around themselves (perhaps trying to camouflage themselves as floating coconuts).

And then who can forget Henry the Hexapus?

 Getty / AFP. From the Telegraph: "Henry the Hexapus proudly displays his difference. The attention-starved mollusc had to fasten himself to the glass of his tank before anyone realized [Henry’s deficiency in the limb department]."

With the holidays creeping up on us, keep these octopus- (and hexapus-) themed stories in mind when you need scintillating conversation topics for your family dinner or office potluck party.



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