Tool-using animals: Now with 100% more invertebrates!

Warning: This video contains footage of an octopus hiding under a coconut shell that it has carried around just in case it needed to hide from something. Watching this footage may contradict your previous assumptions about animal tool use, and may be too adorable for some viewers.

National Geographic: Octopuses Carry Coconut Shells as Instant Shelters


  1. I watched this with the sound off, as the Jazz Butcher’s “Human Jungle” played in the background. It was like having an hour long nap.

  2. I watched that with Lady GaGa – Paparazzi playing in the background.

    but seriously, thats cool. See how it stretches membrane over the leading edge, so water will rush over the top and can move faster. thats really neat

    I, for one, welcome our new octopus overlords.

  3. I found the footage of the octopus walking around with the coconut shell so endearing that at the end, when it crawled on the camera lens and showed us its disgusting underside, I wasn’t the least bit terrified.

    1. Anonymous “I found the footage of the octopus walking around with the coconut shell so endearing that at the end, when it crawled on the camera lens and showed us its disgusting underside, I wasn’t the least bit terrified.”
      I should point out that your underside is no field of daisies either.

  4. Serious question here:

    What do we know about cephalopod brains? How does their brain mass/architecture compare to mammals of similar size and similar ‘intelligence?’

    1. Octopus central nervous systems are more distributed and less centralized than that of mammals.

      They are probably more intelligent than most birds and can possibly rival the brain power of some mammals.

  5. I really like the way the octopus carries the shell around. It is silly and efficient at the same time.

  6. I am both grateful and hungry having seen this noble creature carry it’s own bowl around. If only all of us were so forward thinking as to pack the dish we’d most like to be served in. Perhaps his friend the squid can bring a fork?

  7. No joke: just watched this while eating calamari, listening to The Bees “Ocular” (from their Octopus album) and having just recently embarrassed myself by snorting and giggling to the New Yorker cartoon where the fish says to the Octopus: “It’s not about the eight arms, Roy–it’s that you keep calling them ‘guns'”..while waiting for my take-out…

  8. Humans assign “attractive” animals (dogs, cats, horses)as “smart”, and “ugly” animals (pigs,octopus,etc.)are labeled “dumb”—ARCANE12

  9. This is wonderful. If I personally had a shell I could hunker down under if threatened , I’d do it too!! There are many moments in today’s social(?) life that need emergency measures like this… unfortunately if you blush or stammer or twitch, you’ve had it ! Onya Octopus and may the Force be with you

    1. Yes. I say stupid things sometimes. Especially when a cursory glance at basic math is involved.

      Anon #26: This is a great conundrum that I don’t spend enough time pondering. You may have just bought yourself a post-New Years octopus feature story.

  10. The octopus is the ultimate animal-consciousness conundrum. It is hard to imagine how they could behave the way they do without consciousness. But if they are conscious then consciousness either evolved separately in vertebrates and invertebrates or many, if not most, animals are conscious.

    1. Of course animals are conscious. The difference in behavior between a conscious and unconscious animal is as obvious as the difference in behavior between a conscious and unconscious human being.

      If you’re looking to the concept of “consciousness” to distinguish yourself from the cows you munch, better look for something else. This is reminiscent of the incredibly stupid debate about whether babies feel pain. (Well it sure would’ve been convenient for pediatricians if they didn’t, huh? Better commission some more experiments. And a panel discussion.)

  11. I am deeply disappointed that this thread has yet to mention the act of putting an octopus in a coconut and drinking it all up.

  12. What, no bananas?

    I still just looked at it, while listening to Ween’s Mutilated Lips off The Mollusk. It worked incredibly well. I should think anything by Giant Squid would work just as well. ;D

  13. Okay folks, settle down.

    Yes, this is fascinating stuff. And yes, octopi and other cephalopods are in fact very smart. But I must echo the first commenter’s sentiment: how is this any different than what a hermit crab does?

    Wikipedia broadly defines tool as: “an entity used to interface between two or more domains that facilitates more effective action of one domain upon the other.” A definition by which my hand could be considered a tool.

    I think that in biology and anthropology we need to more narrowly define what we consider to be “tools” and what is “technology”. Many animals use objects as crude implements. On the other hand, only primates actually modify objects to use as tools. Furthermore, they have multiple types of tools and methodologies for using them.

    Anybody can hit someone with a rock, but it takes some brainpower to figure out how to sharpen that rock into a knife.

    1. Geekman, go look up crows. They have been observed in the wild shaping twigs and grasses to create specialized tools. It’s not just primates.

      The mistake most people make is considering “consciousness” an on or off proposition. Douglas Hofstadter does a better job of saying this than I ever could, but essentially all living things have some level of consciousness. It comes down to a difference in how detailed their internal model of the external world is.

    2. how is this any different than what a hermit crab does?

      Because hermit crabs are hard wired that way.

    3. As The Life Of Bryan above says: hermit crabs are hard-wired that way. This octopus, on the other hand, has worked it out.

      A dung beetle similarly is hard-wired to do whatever the hell it is that it does with poop. But if an octopus took a ball of poop and distracted a shark with it, it would be using a tool.

      The point is that few octopuses have been observed doing this, so it’s not a universal behavior within the species. Instead members of the species are smart enough to consider doing this. To put it yet another way: harmit crabs have never been observed doing anything else with shells, besides what all members of their species do.

      And a pet-peeve everyone: “octopi” is not a word. “-i” is a suffix for Latin plurals. “Okto-pous” comes from Greek. “Octopuses” is correct as a plural. (“Octopodes” if you want to be annoying and a show-off.)

      1. #43 – Environment plays a role too. The octopi in the video are living in a sandy bottom with little natural shelter and are more vulnerable than they would be on a reef or other rock field with numerous hiding places.

        Hermit crabs use seashells for basically the same reason. At some point there must’ve been a “first” hermit crab that started using shells for shelter, so in that sense octopi are _less_ evolved than hermit crabs. It’s taken them that much longer to start carrying shelter around with them. On the other hand, there’s only one way a hermit crab uses a seashell, while the octopi in the video use the coconut shell in several different configurations.

        1. Hermit crabs use seashells for basically the same reason. At some point there must’ve been a “first” hermit crab that started using shells for shelter, so in that sense octopi are _less_ evolved than hermit crabs.

          Hermit crabs use shells for basically the same reason that a Human uses a house and clothing. So are hermit crabs more evolved than Humans because Humans haven’t yet evolved to be hard-wired to always carry around cover?

          Your comment about environment was spot-on: in a well-covered environment, the octopus probably wouldn’t do this. But here’s the kicker: the hermit crab still would.

          Instead the octopus has the cognitive brains to figure out that it’s exposed, and to work out a solution to deal with it. And it wasn’t a solution that’s hard-wired in the same way that hermit crabs enter shells, bees are attracted to brightly-colored flowers, or these caterpillars stand next to each other to resemble snakes.

  14. I used to date a research veterinarian.

    Octopi were in her list of animals she would never eat (granted, it was a pretty long list) but it was because she had been long convinced that they had consciousness.

    CBC’s As it Happens had an article about an octopus who was living in a pet store’s aquarium who would crawl out of his/her aquarium at night, to slither/crawl across the floor and climb into one of the other aquariums to catch some dinner.

    When the store’s owner started to notice that fish were missing, they set up a video camera, and…

  15. #33, Fine, “you are correct sir!” But let us have some anthropomorphizing fun, like seeing when our octopus here seems to get “annoyed” with the under water paparazzo and tries to cover the lens with his hand(s), and “feels” “shame” and “exasperation” at having his coconut ruse foiled…

  16. Now if this octopus would do a Steampunk mod to that coconut and play the ukulele, the whole damn Internet could put up a closed sign and retire to Arizona.

  17. Octopi can learn to use new tools.

    At my daughter’s school, West Hawaii Expolorations Academy in Kona, the students are conducting a marine biologoy experiement wherein they are training octopi to unscrew the lids off of jars in order to get a tasty treat.

    Amazing to watch.

    Charter schools rule!

  18. Cephalopods are entirely too clever… which may indicate that a large part of what we consider intelligent behavior may just be the result of having good manipulative abilities, or may be something more.

    Unfortunately they’re also entirely too tasty.

  19. There’s a perfectly logical explanation…

    This octopus is obviously an otherkin — specifically a snail trapped in an octopus’ body.

    The use of the coconut shell is the closest thing the octopus can manage in order to get in touch with its true nature.

  20. # 24 is weak on math. If one octopus is 100% more, then there was one invertebrate which used tools already. But who was that?

  21. nod at geekman about spalling rocks.
    most behavioralists draw a somewhat fuzzy line at tool modification as the basis for being a tool…but that is still a really cool octopus.
    at#12 wiki on cephalopod is kinda dense on teh latin cladistics and taxonomy but what I gather is that modern cephalopods start to break off and begin at about the Permian. wiki permian for cool page.
    takes me back to historical geo… rocks for jocks :)

  22. “just in case it needed to hide from something”.

    Yeah just in case it needs to hide from that DAMN ANNOYING Underwater Rover with the camera that keeps FOLLOWING IT AROUND. Seriously, go video someone else! Don’t you see me trying to hide from you in my coconut shell??

  23. What I find more interesting is that he (she, it, whatever) is using his tentacles like legs as he carries it along. I imagine most of the forward motion is still thanks to a valve jetting water, but it sure looks like he’s walking.

  24. My soundtrack for the scene where it zips away is the classic Wipeout!.

    As far as we know (and this is all terribly difficult due to cultural bias in IQ tests and so on) some octopi are amongst the smartest animals going. Where their bid for World Domination falls over is the bit about socialisation: as in “they haven’t got any”. So this Mad Genius’s idea for a Coconut Escape Module, while it might be recreated from scratch by some other octopus in the future, dies with him.

    Now if they had the chat rooms of the crows or even of the chimps set up then pretty soon all the eight-legged lads would be able to do this and then, with this level of tech to start with they would then have time to improve upon it: full mobile armour suits and so on. As it is Octo-tech is limited to what the smartest possible being can bootstrap up to in one Octo-lifetime. Compare this to the human situation where the lower limit is what the stupidest human can do with whatever technology is handed to it from its ancestors.

    1. Wow – I actually learned something from your post – thank you! But I have a question – when you say octopuses lack socialization, does that include inter-species? Because an octopus keeper in Oregon once told me about how her octopus would greet her every morning (and no, she didn’t feed it first thing…)

  25. 90 percent of these comments (rough estimate) seem to have been kidnapped from Digg.

    Just sayin’ LOL OMFG

    1. Aw, lighten up. People are just goofin. People goofing often resemble each other, whether on digg, BoingBoing or some other site.

  26. I saw this on BBC Science nature first and greatly appreciate seeing the lengthier, higher quality cut with the credits at the end.

    Nice bunch of comments, too. No mention of the nautilus, yet? I wonder if this octopus ever caught sight of one surviving away it’s day to day and said to itself, “Hey! Now that’s a great idea!”

    Smart ass cephalopods, to be sure.

  27. Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Fthagn!
    Now that I have my Lovecraft reference out of the way… Not all that surprising – Octopi are quite likely one of the smartest things in the ocean.

    1. The general lack of Lovecraft comments surely demonstrates that BB is lurching towards maturity. However if Hollywood fails to provide me with scenes of Cthulhu using the Millennium Dome or Hollywood Bowl to shield himself from jet fighters sometime in 2010, I’ll be writing some stern letters.

  28. Wow! The possibilities for cute startled octopus virals has grown exponentially with the coconut thrown in.

  29. Having mastered the coconut shell, the octopodes can now easily build anything the Professor built on Gilligan’s Island.

  30. Fake!*

    *Not that I actually think this is fake but there is a rule on the internets that any discussion longer than 50 comments about a video or a photo, there has to be at least one person saying it was fake.

  31. Hey Geekman, by that definition any parasite, nay even a virus, can be said to use its host organism as a “tool”.

    Looks less to the “goal” or “end” of the creature’s use of the object, and more to the function to which the physical object is put, that is, more to the mechanics of the item’s use by that creature, to distinguish “tools” from other things.

    Needs some structure other than a mere function, to be said to be a tool.

  32. I always think of that (maybe apocryphal) tale of the guy with the pet octopus, who has a feeder fish tank on the other side of the room. He chastises his roommate for feeding the octopus too often, since the feeder fish are decreasing. “I’m not feeding the octopus!” his roommate protests. Finally, he stakes out the room and notices the wet sucker marks on floor. Octopus has been opening its tank, climbing down, squelching the ten feet to the other tank, opening that latch, taking a fish, going back to its own tank.

    1. I’m either voting for apocryphal or that must be extremely common octopus behavior. I heard it from the staff at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and at least one other commenter in this thread has heard it, too.

      Or maybe we all have FOAFs at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab…

  33. Guess I’m in the minority. I found it positively creepy. Evoked spiders for me.

    Makes me glad most of these things only live a year or two. With their brains, and dexterity, I think they’d be coming for us if they lived long enough.

    And I’m okay with that, I eat them after all, so it seems fair that they should get the chance to return the favor.

    -abs is just saying that video bugged him at some visceral level

    1. I don’t know about this species, but I think some of them live a great deal longer than you suggest.

      I think this is awesome. Evokes John Lilly for me. If we can learn to communicate with other intelligences here, perhaps we can learn to communicate with truly alien intelligences.

      The oceans are beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

      1. Maybe I’m confusing squid and octopusses. Or possibly I was thinking of a specific species of octopus. I’ll have to go do some research. I hate to spout B$. (though we all do so on occasion)

        Still found it creepy-looking though.

        -abs does assert that creepy doesn’t necessarily mean “Not tasty”

        1. I know, I shouldn’t reply to myself. Sorry.

          So I went to wiki octupusses and found that I’m generally correct. They are largely shortlived as lifeforms. Some live as short a life as six months.

          The larger breeds can live longer however. Wiki cites the North Pacific Giant Octopus as living up to five years.

          So I must admit that’s a bit beyond a couple of years. But it’s still thankfully short given how smart those damn things are.

          -abs does feel a little abashed at replying to himself, but not enough to not do it

  34. Aaaaahahahaha, he’s trying to carry the camera away! These creatures are so intelligent how can anyone eat them?

  35. oh yeah: throwing my vegan hat back in the ring. and don’t take me as anti-hedonistic. that I am most assuredly not.

  36. I am surprised that no one has mentioned how smart that coconut must be to have convinced that octopus to carry it around like that…

  37. Kinda reminds me of the Discovery documentary on the “mimic octopus.” That cephalopod would contort itself to appear as a lion fish or poisonous snake to scare off creatures that consider an octopus lunch, but a deadly snake as something to run from! Go octopus overlords!

  38. This is completely delightful. I assume that anyone who is too cynical to enjoy this delight has lost something vital. Or just doesn’t dig cephalapods as much as they should.

    I giggled and I completely root for them.

    I am not a vegetarian but I do not eat cephalapods for specific reasons (silly, I know, I should be a vegetarian. I know.)

  39. Anonymousw @88, this made me think of mimic octopus too. I think we need to alter our definition of technology. Why is it that learning to keep a coconut shell around is technology, but learning to mimic the shapes of other animals isn’t?

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