Tool use in Veined Octopus

15 December, 2009

Veined Octopus in coconut shell shelter
Veined Octopus in coconut shell shelter
Image: Roger Steene
Source: Courtesy of Current Biology

Museum Victoria’s Julian Finn and Mark Norman have recorded the first case of tool use – sophisticated behaviour generally limited to mammals and birds – in an invertebrate. 

The Veined Octopus, Amphioctopus marginatus, uses foreign objects for shelter, which is common in octopuses and is not itself considered tool use. However the Veined Octopus goes a step further and prepares, manipulates and carries coconut shells up to 20 metres to reassemble its shelter elsewhere.

Julian and Mark spent more than 500 hours diving in Indonesian waters to observe and film these animals. They watched octopuses dig out coconut shells from the ocean floor, empty shells with jets of water, stack two empty shells hollow-side up, and carry the shells in a unique gait they call ‘stilt-walking’. This series of actions is among the most complex ever recorded in an octopus.

The Veined Octopus probably evolved this behaviour using clam shells as shelter. However once humans began discarding large numbers of coconut shells, they inadvertently created a steady supply of lightweight octopus tools.


Julian and Mark’s paper 'Defensive tool use in a coconut-carrying octopus' was co-authored by Tom Tregenza. It was published in the journal Current Biology on 15 December.

Comments (35)

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Jen Brook 15 December, 2009 13:06
wow! I just watched this twice in a row - it is Amazing!
sue agombar 15 December, 2009 14:20
That is soo cool!
Tino 15 December, 2009 20:36
That´s me the morning after.
Claus 15 December, 2009 21:50
klasse echt faszinierend
Ralph Thannhäuser 15 December, 2009 23:28
As a litle help in your research: In Alcudia, Mallorca I saw an octopus, which had build an Iglu-Stile house for hinlelf, made out of collected smaller rocks. It was built like an Iglu in a way the stones were put around in decreasing circles and had an half round entrance at one side. When the octopus left it, it still stood by its own. It was on a sandy part in the water near to the harbour. Sincerely Ralph Thannhäuser
joe 16 December, 2009 05:15
This video should be mandatory viewing for any American who is underwater on their mortgage. Once Øctobama has completed his take-over of our economy, we will all be able to improvise, reduce our carbon footprints and live in improvised housing.
Dr. David E. Hill 16 December, 2009 05:49
First case of 'tool use' in invertebrates? You need to look more closely at a number of different animals, including many insects that collect and use a variety of objects in their environment. For example, some caddisfly larvae collect hundreds of sand grains that they carefully weave together into a protective, cylindrical abode. Some species use other materials. Sometimes an abode made from collected material (e.g., the home of a mud-dauber wasp, or a potter wasp) is fixed, and sometimes, as in the case of most caddisflies, it is carried about. If we extend the 'tool using' criterion to the more general recognition and use of objects in the environment (for example, use of a plant for protection), we find many more examples. This octopus behavior is fascinating, perhaps unusual for a cephalopod, but it is by no means unique in the non-vertebrate groups of the Bilateria.
Tom Tregenza, Mark Norman & Julian Finn 16 December, 2009 06:00

David’s point reflects one of the ongoing debates in the literature on tool use – when does a behaviour start to become tool use?  He highlights a number of examples of invertebrates picking up objects in their environment and using them for building – something octopuses also do (see ref in our article).  Even more impressively, some species of ants encountering sugar solutions will pick up masses of absorbent soil and use these to soak up the solution for transport back to the nest (also cited in our article).  However, the reason we argue that the behaviour of this octopus is unique is that it carries the coconut shells around in such a way that they provide no benefit during transport, and then uses them when they will be beneficial.  This is distinct from collecting a rock and then putting in front of a burrow or collecting a piece of soil to soak up liquid because these behaviours appear to occur only in response to a specific stimulus of the need to build a den or the presence of a liquid food source.  In contrast, the octopus seems to carry shells, much as we might carry an umbrella – in anticipation of them being useful in the future.  We fully accept that this distinction is a subtle one – this is an inevitable feature of these sorts of semantic debate – nature has a seamless continuum of behaviours whereas language is constructed to reflect our love of putting things in pigeon-holes. 

April Neal-Nava 16 December, 2009 06:48
I knew that octopi were smart over 20 years ago. A friend of mine owned a restuarant and he had a really large, covered tank where he kept the lobster. He also had a show type tank for his octipus. He kept comming to work and opening the restuarant and there would be all these shells from the lobster in the lobster tank and on the floor too. He thought an employee was doing this so he set up a camera. Low and behold, he caught his octipus on film opening up the lid to his tank, sithering down the side of the tank, walking accross the floor and then up the next table to the lobster tank where the octipus opened the lid and went after the lobsters. Pretty expensive octipus food there! Octipi are "thinkers" that is for sure. April Neal-Nava San Diego, CA
April Neal 16 December, 2009 06:51
One more thing I forgot to add to my story is that AFTER THE OCTIPUS WAS DONE IN THE LOBSTER TANK, IT CRAWLED BACK OUT, ACCROSS THE FLOOR AND BACK INTO ITS OWN TANK! This octipus was smart enough not to get caught!....until the camera that is.
Oli 16 December, 2009 08:34
We also saw one of those in the north of bali in july 2009. Awesome.
steve naegele 16 December, 2009 09:07
I saw a japanese tv show aobut 8 years ago where they compared a chimp and squid on three learning situations on how to get food figuring out complex steps and and each time the squid figured it out faster than the chimp.
Pie 16 December, 2009 10:08
That is the coolest thing I've ever seen! --Pie
Naly D 16 December, 2009 11:27
So is this different to UC Berkley's report in 2005? The octopus, with a head about two inches long, lives on the sandy bottom in water some 20 to 30 meters (60 to 100 feet) deep, among lots of sunken coconuts, and even hides out in the shells of coconuts, drawing two halves around it to hide. [note: Coconut Octopus and Veined Octopus are the same thing]
Lauren 16 December, 2009 13:17
I never thought I would think of an octopus as cute, but that thing is adorable! Don't think I'll eat octopus again.
Diana 16 December, 2009 19:22
I have now completely replaced my fear of spiders with octopi. Thanks?
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lothar Hennemuth 16 December, 2009 21:00
this is a very nice film, the process of live is evolution, building shelters is one of the first things that humans startet with, but before this is the fascination of thinking, i need shelter and before this is the question, why + for whom, so - do animals think? i would say yes, maybe this is one step in proofing it. so we are not allone on this planet, thank you for this little video.
MissRubix 16 December, 2009 22:06
Naly D, sure both articles mention the same species of octopus, but they *are* different. The Berkley article was discussing research into bipedal movement in octopuses, not specifically the use of tools. You will note the Berkley article also states 'Its weird walking behavior, no doubt noticed by numerous other divers, has apparently never been analyzed in the scientific literature... "We know so little about these animals"..' Is it so strange someone else is attempting to add to our documented observations? After all, it's not like they were claiming to have discovered the species.
Anne Thackray 17 December, 2009 04:52
I met a smart octopus when, as a girl visiting Vancouver's Aquarium, I put my hand flat on the glass side of a tank, and the octupus inside crawled across and up the glass to match exactly the spread of my fingers. Don't eat octopuses, people !
Howell V. Daly 17 December, 2009 06:20
I agree with Dr. Hill. For an entertaining treatment of the use of tools by insects see "Animal Architecture" by Nobel Laureate Karl von Frisch, 1974, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Included is an account of a wasp that uses a pebble to tamp down the sand at the entrance to the nest.
Philip 17 December, 2009 10:16
The subjects of this article make no claims to have discovered this behaviour, only to have filmed it for the first time. Great work, divers!
Jim Sapp 18 December, 2009 05:34
I saw octopus using empty metal welding rod cans for shelter. This was in 1965 era. They were on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico near drilling platforms. The water depth was 70 feet.
richard 18 December, 2009 17:20
sanie 20 December, 2009 16:38
Keep the good work divers. Hope you discover more about their world in the future for us to see.
Max Heggen 21 December, 2009 11:28
Whilst snorkelling near Wewak in PNG in 1980/81, I came across a small crab which was crossing an open area of sand. In order to protect itself from predators (stingrays?), it was holding a live spiny sea urchin above its head. When I swam down to work out why a sea urchin could move so fast, the crab would move the sea urchin so as the spines always pionted in my direction, no matter from which side I approached.
Discovery Centre 21 December, 2009 12:10

Thanks for that interesting anecdote, Max! We'll pass it on.

LORIE 2 January, 2010 20:09
Jerrica 20 January, 2010 06:44
Too many times I have heard while studying primatology that apes are the only ones known for tool use- adding to the argument of human evolution. I've always thought this was a ridiculous argument since beavers use of tools, in my opinion, outshines those of apes (they cut, strip, stack and seal their wood for their damns...chimps jam a stick in a hole and get more credit). And now! Here are octopi further debunking that particular ape superiority falsehood!
Kate Neal 2 May, 2010 01:45
Wow! The octopuses are like geniuses!
Michael 13 July, 2010 10:04
Thank you for the opportunity to view such amazing animal ingenuity.
Sue Manning 13 July, 2010 10:13
Heard the story on our West ABC this morning and was so interested could not wait to see clip. I have watched this clip a number of times and am in awe!! Please take care of our sea creatures present and future Governments and the Public!! Do not litter or pollute our great oceans. My plea to you all. Thank you!
Marian Gard 13 July, 2010 11:11
Unbelievable behaviour and I thought that they were dumb animals - really creative stilt walking - incredible!
Shelley Bojesen 13 July, 2010 12:22
Decided to check out the tool using octopus on the website after listening to the story on the 720 ABC this morning (13/7/10). Yes, they are amazing creatures. I used to lie on the bottom and watch ockies up in Exmouth, West Australia when I was working for Exmouth Diving Centre. Back in the good old days when there was only one dive shop. They still fascinate me...good work!
Ella Griffiths 6 August, 2010 22:39
That Is SOOOOOOOOO Funny!!!! :)
sandy rodriguez 11 September, 2010 19:33
Thanks for all the work you do!!! here are several of my new paintings inspired by your work. all my best, SR