Science!: Vikings, Coconuts and Octopuses

Lauren Admire | 21 Dec 2009 17:00

Octopus Uses Coconut As Protection

Deep at the bottom of the ocean, something stirs, creating a brief and twisting sandstorm. A basking shark circles its territory, its heightened senses honing in on a potential meal. As it swims closer, the sand settles and the shark's meal seems to have escaped. The shark swims away, passing a lone coconut shell as it continues its hunt. When the threat has passed, a single tip of a tentacle appears from underneath the shell, tipping it upwards just enough for the octopus to peer out of its makeshift hideout.

They're learning.

Tool usage, and I use that term broadly, is one of the "hallmarks of mankind." It used to be the case that there was only evidence of humans taking sticks and stones and using them for an innovative purpose. And then there came bonobos, who use sticks to fish ants out of anthills. And then there were dolphins, who stick a sponge on their snout to protect themselves while they search for stingrays. And now there are octopuses, which find abandoned, halved coconut shells and don them like armor.

Researchers working off the coasts of Bali and Northern Sulawesi spotted at least four occasions of this particular usage of coconuts in veined octopuses. Having exhausted their authentic Coconut Rum drink, humans partying off the coasts of Bali and other exotic locales toss their coconuts into the ocean, where they eventually come to rest on the ocean floor. Enterprising young octopuses dig these unexpected treasures up by latching onto them with all eight arms and rotating them out of the muck and mud. Those octopuses who only find one coconut half use it as a makeshift hideout when predators come about. Those lucky enough to find two halves often recreate the original coconut form and sneak inside.

The best part is how they procure the coconuts. After prying them from the mud, they sink into the pit of the hollowed out coconut and then extend their arms from each side. Gripping the coconut with their suckers, they stiffen their arms and literally run, however sloppily, towards their destination. It's really, really cute. Here - check out the video (feel free to ignore the music).

Thanks for the heads up, crotalidian.

(And before a debate even starts, no, the plural of octopus is not octopi. Octopi applies a Latinized pluralization to a Greek word, which is a no-no. And, no, I didn't actually know that until a much-smarter than me etymologist told me so.)


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