Have Coconut, Will Travel

23 Apr 2010

Dr Julian Finn and Dr Mark Norman (Museum Victoria) talk about their experiences filming the Veined Octopus, and the significance of its coconut-carrying behaviour.

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This is the Veined Octopus, found in the waters of Indonesia. Octopuses are reknowned for both their intelligence and curiosity, and now Dr Julian Finn, a La Trobe PhD graduate at Museum Victoria, has observed some extraordinary behaviour.

Dr Julian Finn:

I first came across this octopus in Indonesia when I was diving and looking for a completely different octopus. I came across this coconut, which was on the sea floor. As I got closer I saw it move, and I realised there was an octopus underneath. So I just settled down with my camera, not far, about this far away from the shell, and I sat there and watched, just waiting to see what would happen. Normally an octopus would push out an arm, or it might scuttle away, but to my surprise this octopus flipped the shell over, jumped up on top, lifted the shell up under it’s body and ran away. I’ve seen a lot of behaviour from octopus over the years but I’ve never seen something like this, it was an extremely comical sight.


Working with his colleague Dr Mark Norman, Julian has spent more than 500 hours underwater studying the veined octopus. After talking to Dr Tom Tregenza of the University of Exeter, they became aware of the significance of what they had seen.

Dr Julian Finn:

The interesting thing about this behaviour was that while the octopus was carrying the coconut, it was actually of no benefit to it, it was probably making it more vulnerable. It had this big shell underneath it’s body and it was running on it’s arm tips. I followed it for some time, and when it got close to another shell, it pulled the two together and enclosed itself in this protective armour. So the interesting thing about this behaviour is that the collection and transport of the shell is actually for later use. So under current definitions of tool use it’s considered a tool. It’s kind of like us carrying an umbrella in case it rained. This octopus was finding shells, manipulating them, carrying them along, knowing it might need them in the future and then when it felt threatened it put them together in a protective case and hid inside. So it’s sort of that anticipation of needing it that was interesting.

This was the first time that tool use had been reported in invertebrates, and has changed the way that scientists regard these animals.

Dr Mark Norman:

Up ‘til now tool use is something that lots of scientific studies have said are associated with complicated behaviour like humans and primates and advanced birds, and I think this octopus discovering really turns things around and makes us realise that lots of different animals are probably using objects in much more complicated ways than we thought, so for this octopus to stack and carry these coconut shells, and then deploy them as armour when it needs to, it fits the formal definition of tool use. So it’s caused a bit of a stir in the tool use theory world, but I think it challenges the view that it’s not just the clever humans that are doing it but a lot of animals out there are using objects in really complicated ways.


While these observations are significant, this fantastic discovery is really just the beginning of the knowledge the oceans have to offer.

Dr Mark Norman:

I think marine systems are particularly rich ground for these sorts of discoveries, there’s so little wild observations of marine creatures in their natural environment. There’s little enough for shallow water let alone the deep stuff, but I think there’s all sorts of stories we know nothing about. We really are touching the tip of the iceberg in terms of animal behaviour, animal evolution, and these sorts of complex behaviours.

Dr Julian Finn:

We’ve always known that complex behaviours were things that humans could do, and other higher invertebrates, monkeys and so forth. We knew that some bird species knew tools, and whatnot. But it’s not something that we normally associate with the lower invertebrates. Octopus are related to snails, they’re not really considered to be that smart. Here we had an octopus doing extremely complex behaviour, which what appeared to be foresight to use a tool at a later date. And that was what was really interesting, that such lower invertebrates I guess you could say were capable of such complex behaviours.



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