Friday, December 18, 2009

Move over, monkeys, there's a new smart animal in town

We used to think that the use of tools was a hallmark of our human species. Then we learned that in fact, some primates also use tools. For example, orangutans will use a stick to poke at ant hills to collect the fleeing ants for a tasty snack. The real piece of humble pie came when we discovered that birds also use tools. That’s right. Tiny-brained crows are able to use a curved stick to get at a treat in a tight spot. So I can’t say that it came as a shock to learn that the octopus, an invertebrate, also recently joined the smarty-pants tool-using club.

Most people who spend all day procrastinating working at their desk and have internet access probably already saw this neat video featuring an octopus carrying around a coconut shell and hiding in it:

In a recent article published in the journal Current Biology (which includes the video above), researchers describe how octopuses (also called octopodes, I had to look this up) carry coconut shells for later defensive use. The octopuses are seen scurrying around (on distances up to 20 meters!) with the shells cumbersomely positioned between their tentacles, and later assemble the two halves of coconut shells and hide inside. The authors stress that the interesting feature of this behavior is that when the octopuses are carrying the shells, they are at an increased predator risk, because they move slower than normal and their heads are exposed. Therefore, the only benefit of carrying the shells is the future use of these shells as a shelter. Apparently, that’s an amazing display of foresight for an organism that uses most of it brain cells to control its too many limbs.

While the video is definitely captivating, I think that whether this study is groundbreaking or not depends a lot on what the definition for “tool use” is. In the article, the researchers state that “a tool provides no benefit until it is used for a specific purpose”, so shelters like those of the hermit crabs don’t qualify. But even though the shells are used at a later time point, I’m not sure about calling them “tools”. I guess I mostly see them as a shelter. Is a shelter a defensive tool? Ah, semantics…

Reference: Defensive tool use in a coconut-carrying octopus. (2009) Finn JK, Tregenza T, Norman MD. Current Biology 19(23) :1069-70.

3 Responses to “Move over, monkeys, there's a new smart animal in town”

solaceinthecity said...

Sea otters use tools too to break open their food (sea urchins)!
This is awesome about the cute little octopus.

Dr. Julie said...

Sea otters! My favorite. Not only do they use tools, they also hold hands. Now that's what I'm talking about.

Hi, cool post. Awesome vid and marvelous pictures. I have been wondering about this topic,so thanks for writing. Keep blogging. Looking forward to reading your next post.

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