Researchers from the Museum of Victoria have stumbled across a rare case of invertebrate tool manipulation in Indonesian waters. While studying the delightful mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus), biologists Dr Julian Finn and Dr Mark Norman observed the peculiar and complex behaviour of more than twenty veined octopuses (Amphioctopus marginatus) off the coasts of Northern Sulawesi and Bali. When coconut shell halves are discarded (or rubbish or shells etc), they fall to the ocean floor to be buried by the substrate which gradually settles on top. Using jets of water expelled from their mantle, the veined octopuses would flush the mud and sand away from inside the shells and use them for shelter from lurking predators.
On four occasions the veined octopuses were observed to stack the coconut shell halves inside themselves so they could wrap their tentacles around and awkwardly “stilt-walk” across distances of up to twenty metres with them in tow. “We were blown away,” Dr Norman told National Geographic. “It was hard not to laugh underwater and flood your mask.”
When compared to their usual unencumbered jet-propelled locomotion, this “lumbering octopedal gait” is a noticeably inefficient and risky alternative, the only benefit being the future manipulation of the shells as a safety enclosure from potential predators. That the octopuses are opting to haul these shells around for later use instead of simply darting behind a rock when a threat is detected, together with the fact that the shells need to be manipulated in a certain way in order to make them work signifies that these cephalopods have the heightened cognitive ability required for basic tool use. “I think these sorts of behaviours are everywhere in nature. There’s really complex behaviours that we write off because we think we’re the clever ones.” Dr Norman told ABC News.
Now while everyone might think this is really awesome and ingenious and everything, to me it all seems a bit much. I know Under the Sea isn’t always a bed of roses, but the other sea creatures get by okay without having to cart a couple of coconut shells around with them all the time, so I don’t see why the veined octopus thinks it needs to. Like, they’d all be hanging out, the veined octopus, the weedy pygmy seahorse and the nudibranch, trying to reconstruct the events of last night’s Christmas party whilst battling through their mad hangovers like:
“Um so I hear you landed a coffee date with the GM who looks like Alec Baldwin.”
“Shit. I don’t remember that at all. Isn’t he married?”
When the nudibranch will be all, “Erm guys, my rhinophores just retracted, so you might want to keep your voices down. It’s probably nothing, and I’m hyper-coloured to the shit anyway, so I don’t care.”
And the weedy pygmy seahorse will be all, “Oh okay, yeah that’s coo…”
But the veined octopus, in typical melodramatic fashion, will be stilt-walking back and forth like a madman, cutting them off all, “OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE EVERYONE GET THE FUCK OUT I CAN’T FIT YOU IN HERE YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN OH MY ARGHHHHH!!”
But it turns out to be a false alarm and they’ll all laugh about it afterwards, but the veined octopus will only laugh because everyone else is laughing because he actually thinks it’s a very serious situation and they just got lucky this one time. Then the nudibranch will be like, “So who wants ice cream?” And they’ll all get ice cream but the weedy pygmy seahorse won’t be able to finish hers so she’s like, “It’s cool, I’ll just take it home and put it in the freezer for later. What..?”
Only the veined octopus will slow them down with his awkward coconut-laden stilt-walking and the weedy pygmy seahorse will get all pissy like, “Seriously, veined octopus, hurry up. Lose the fucking shells. Once these flavours melt into each other it’s ruined.”
“JUST THROW IT OUT.”
“NO. IT’S FINE. HURRY UP.”
But then the veined octopus will see the nudibranch’s rhinophores start to retract again and he’ll freak out like, “Shit, Nudibranch, your rhinosphores… OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL IN SO MUCH TROUBLE ESPECIALLY ME BECAUSE I’D MAKE A REALLY AWESOME MEAL LOOK HOW MEATY I AM COMPARED TO YOU GUYS ARGHHHHH…”
And the nudibranch will try to explain that there is no danger, he just wants to mate with the pretty lady nudibranch chilling somewhere nearby, but the veined octopus will throw back a muffled, “Better safe than sorry!!” through his coconut shells. And then he’ll make them wait and hide for another ten or fifteen minutes before he decides it’s safe to move on.
“You know, it’s probably because of me that we’re all still alive. Oh… hey, seahorse, what happened to your ice cream?”
Current Biology paper here. // Visit Microecos for more examples of invertebrate tool use.
More on octopuses:
* Oh Hey, Cephalopod. How Much of That Did You Just Hear…?
* Intelligence Test – You’re Doing It Wrong.