Veined octopus a clever cephalopod


Bec Crew


Bec Crew

Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
By Bec Crew 4 February 2015
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This talented octopus sources and cleans out coconut shells to use as shelter

With its squinty face, glowy suction pads, and affinity for empty coconut shells, the veined octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus) is one of the most special octopuses in the world.

Native to the warmest parts of the western Pacific Ocean, ranging from South Africa to Australia and up around New Guinea and southern Japan, this smart cephalopod has claimed one of the most impressive achievements you could ever hope to put on a business card: ‘Performed first example of tool use ever observed in an invertebrate’.

With a line like that, this plucky little guy would never be out of a job.

The behaviour was first reported back in 2009, when marine biologists Julian Finn and Mark Norman from Museum Victoria in Melbourne spent more than 500 hours observing a bunch of veined octopuses going about their daily business off the coasts of Northern Sulawesi and Bali in Indonesia.

Tool use by an octopus

The pair watched as 20 different veined octopuses performed the exact same behaviour – picking up and carrying around a couple of empty coconut shells for use as a portable home.

This is no simple task – they’d often have to dig the shells up out of the seabed, wash them off using carefully aimed jets of water, and then stack them, one inside the other, like a couple of empty bowls. If two coconut shells aren’t available, an octopus would have to settle for something similar, like an empty clamshell, as the individual in the image above is demonstrating so handsomely.

And the most efficient way the veined octopus has found to carry those two coconut halves around? It’s called ‘stilt-walking’, and it involves the octopus basically ‘sitting’ on the shells, holding them up with two arms on either side, and then using the rest of its arms to trundle awkwardly across the ocean floor around its prized possessions.

Finn and Norman describe the awkwardness in all its glory in Current Biology:

“This unique and previously undescribed form of locomotion is ungainly and clearly less efficient than unencumbered locomotion (i.e. costly in terms of energy and increased predator risk compared with normal walking or the faster jet swimming escape).

While ‘stilt-walking’ the octopus gains no protective benefits from the shell(s) it is carrying, as the head and body are fully exposed to potential predators. The only benefit is the potential future deployment of the shell(s) as a surface shelter or as a buried encapsulating lair.”

It sounds silly, but let’s be honest – walking around looking like an idiot in front of a bunch of tool-less sea creatures that don’t know any better is a small price to pay for instant access to an Encapsulating Lair.

I’m suddenly annoyed that the home I’ve chosen to live in isn’t quite encapsulating enough, and certainly not a lair.

Here’s one veined octopus showing how it’s done: