Octopus carries around coconut shells as suits of armour

By Ed Yong | December 14, 2009 12:00 pm

Octopuses are masters of camouflage that can change their shape, colour and texture to perfectly blend into their environment. But the soft bodies that make them such excellent con artists also make them incredibly vulnerable, should they be spotted. Some species have solved that problem with their fierce intellect, which allows them to make use of other materials that are much harder. The veined octopus, for example, dons a suit of armour made of coconut shells.

The veined octopus (Amphioctus marginatus) lives in sandy, exposed habitats that have little in the way of cover. To protect itself, it hides among the hollow husks of coconuts. It even carries its armour around with it, tucking the shell under its body, sitting on it like a bowl, and moving around on tip-tentacles.

These cumbersome hikes can last for up to 20 metres and they make the octopus look like an eight-legged stilt-walker. The octopus can even carry two shells, stacked inside each other. If danger threatens, it can quickly assemble the two halves into a protective sphere, holding them in place with its suckers.

The new discovery comes from Julian Finn, Tom Tregenza and Mark Norman, the same terrific trio who brought us the first report of the mimic octopus’s amazing shape-changing abilities. They spent over 500 hours of diving across ten years, studying the behaviour of veined octopuses in Indonesian waters.

The veined octopus has hit the headlines before for coconut-related reasons. As part of its portfolio of disguises, it will often stroll across the ocean floor on two tentacles, while wrapping the other six around its head in a tight bundle. To a passing fish, it would strongly resemble a rolling coconut.

Originally, Finn suspects that the octopuses used the empty shells of dead shellfish as defence. There’s no way for an octopus to crack a coconut on its own, but it has no need to do this. Coastal human settlements often use coconuts and discard the split shells. In doing so, they have provided the veined octopus with even tougher shields.

The trio suggest that the octopus uses coconut shells as bona fide tools. Many invertebrates, such as hermit crabs, shelter in shells but they do so permanently. The octopus, however, gains no protection from its shells whatsoever when it carries them around in the stilt-walking fashion. The shells’ benefits lie in the fact that they can be quickly deployed as a makeshift fortress. The fact that the octopus picks up the coconuts for later use suggests a more complicated intellect at work. As Finn writes: 

“The discovery of this octopus tiptoeing across the sea floor with its prized coconut shells suggests that even marine invertebrates engage in behaviours that we once thought the preserve of humans.

Reference: Current Biology in press



MORE ABOUT: coconut, octopus, stilt, veined

Comments (14)

  1. Vasha

    Okay, this is the best thing I’ve read all week! That video is something else.

  2. Saw a similar video on BBC news, and immediately though this must be your octopus-related big news! Thanks! This is amazing…

  3. Art

    If humans advanced by ‘pounding rocks together’ one might wonder what they might come up with using coconut shells in a million years. Do we need to keep islanders from discarding their coconut shells so casually to prevent dangerous technology transfers?

  4. Matt

    “Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?”

  5. Ed Yong

    Way ahead of you. Check out the link in the opening para.

  6. Daniel J. Andrews

    Argh! Beaten to the joke, not once, but twice.
    This, and the octopus-mimicry videos, are fantastic and I’ll be showing them to my ecology class next year.

  7. Briana

    Haha, after I read your mimic octopus article I went on a youtube-octopus-video spree and ran across the second video you have there. There was another one that displayed an octopus climbing into two halves of the shell and closing them and the commenters thought it was fake.
    Thanks for the post!

  8. IanW

    Octopus’s Garding!
    I find myself in times of trouble,
    A pair of coconuts comes with me
    Keeping me secure
    Let me be!
    And in my hour of darkness
    There is still a place for sanctuary
    Keeping me in safety
    Let me be-e…
    (apologies to Paul McCharmly)

  9. kss

    octopi* is the plural of octopus . . . not octopuses

  10. Michelle

    **octopi = octopuses; you can use either – check dictionary.com!

  11. Levi in NY

    Actually, from an etymological standpoint, “octopuses” is more correct, as “octopus” is a Greek word and not a Latin word.

  12. jab

    A late pedantic comment on the plural of octopus:
    Etymologically, the Greek roots are “okto” (eight)+ “pous” (foot). The Greek plural would be “oktopodes” The singular word has already been Anglicized, meaning the English plural form, “octopuses” is likely more correct although “octopodes” would be acceptable.

  13. crolmac

    I know that octopuses in the Grreek agean (around chios island) find themselves little holes and back up into them, with a stone on a tentacle, and they keep the stone in font of the hole and their face, to look like part of the bedrock. Of course, if you are a human, you find all the telltale shells and find them, but if you don’t know what to look for, you can pass right by them. cheers!

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