Octopus Tool Use?

February 1, 2007


How do you define tool use? I came across the little octopus on a night dive. He was walking around carrying two halves of a shell with him. When threatened, he closed himself up inside the shell. Now many animals, like the hermit crab, adopt a shell for protection but in this case the octopus carried around two sides that he knew fit together. That comes close to tool use in my book.

An Ocean World Podcast about the Blanket Octopus provides an even better case of tool use. The Blanket Octopus is famous for sexual dimorphism, the male being much smaller (2cm) than the female (6ft). But the really cool thing, in my opinion, is the way the tiny male uses jellyfish tentacles. Apparently he gathers the living stinging tentacles from jelly fish, holds them between his suckers, and wields them when threatened.

Click the player below to listen to the podcast.


20 Responses to “Octopus Tool Use?”

  1. mikeriveraprod Says:

    octupuses are great sea creatures. They are really smart i once watch a whole video about them and damn I was fascinated.

  2. Dan Cooper Says:

    Cool… octopus are way more intelligent than most people think. There was a story about one at the Monterey Bay Aquarium who would sneak out of his tank at night, crawl across the floor to a different tank to eat some fish, and then return to his own tank before morning time.

  3. Wayne Says:

    “I’d like to be, under the sea…”

    it’s true what they say about the octopus’ garden, so I would suspect they have a higher level of intelligence than most would give them credit for. They just can’t say ‘quit stinking up my water with your pollution’. I’m sure they would if they could.

    Cool pic and nice story!

  4. lisa Says:

    dan’s been reading steinbeck, methinks. the doc and his octopi!

  5. I'm a geek, yes, sorry. Says:

    proper plural form: octopodes.

  6. RAD Says:

    The octopus in this photo is tiny… the shell he is in is about an inch long. Cephalopods are smart but what really fascinates me about them is that they seem to make eye contact with you. Here is a another post with one of my favorite photos of a cuttlefish:


  7. smart animal Says:

    Wow, fascinating smart octopus there. It adds one more intelligent creature in the books.
    good to know, and the picture stamps it.

  8. NurtureNature Says:

    Im not certain at the moment which way ‘doc and his octopi’ should read because i dont know the reference to steinbeck… however both octopi and octopods are correct plural for octopus. The one is for plural of the same specie and the other for many various species.

    fun huh.

  9. RobynRex Says:

    Octopus are extremely intelligent and delicious too.YUM

  10. Sean Says:

    These creatures are very intelligent. They can open jars, and even kill a shark.

  11. Ang Says:

    I don’t know about “tool use” but it certainly is adaptive behaviour.

  12. Jay Says:

    Sometimes changes in environment or diet force animals to activate and deactivate genes in weird ways. Turning off a bird’s feather gene allows it to grow scales. Some octopi have an internal shell. Perhaps the octopus knew exactly what to do because a gene was activated/deactivated and it was reacting to an environmental change.

  13. dffd Says:

    I don’t think its a tool till it has been changed from its orgnial state to make it work better. so i guess a tool would be a modified/made useful object.

  14. RAD Says:

    Does an object have to be changed from its original state to be a tool? Chimps use rocks, both hammer and anvil, to crack open nuts. Otters will also use rocks as tools to dislodge and crack open abalone.

    Ang certainly has a point that the shell use by the octopus may be adaptive behavior. A decorator crab that adds anemones and/or sponges to his adopted shell home certainly falls in this category.

    I captured the octopus just as he was closing up his shell. It looks like the top shell is balancing on his head. When I came across him, he was moving along the bottom, some tentacles holding on to the top shell, some hanging on to the bottom shell, and all the other tentacles were outside the shells walking along.

    Now if he was dragging a bottle along and escaped into it when threatened I would call that adaptive. If he was carrying a bottle and a cork and the cork fit in the bottle only one way then I would call it tool use if he always corked the bottle after entering. This little guy treats the two shell halves like directional corks and always has them aligned front-to-back. He anticipates how he will use the two shell halves.

    The octopus is cute as a button but this is one of those occasions that I wish I had a video camera rather than a still camera. The behavior has to be seen to be believed. Seems to be a common theme with cephalopods.

  15. LogicalOctopus Says:

    I first heard of ‘tool use’ as an indicator of intelligence when chimpanzees were shown to use twigs as tools for gathering ants.

    I have since seen my cat (on several occasions) use toilet paper as a tool. She very intentively slices off a bit from the roll with her claws. Tosses it into the toilet bowl, fishes it back out and then sucks the water out of it. So octopus are as smart as cats?

    I guess the question is, ‘what exactly does tool use signify’?

  16. justin Says:

    Tool use was once thought the be the domain of the higher functioning, reasoning species, i.e. ourselves. It gave us something we could point at as a way to illustrate our superior intelligence, usually with a stick or some other pointing tool. But then we discovered chimps using tools and, what’s more, teaching their children to do the same.

    Consider this: we as a species have been agricultural for about ten thousand years. Members of the family Formicidae (ants) have been cultivating fungus as food for fifty million years.

    If cephalopods lived longer than a few years, I think they would take over the world. They’ve got elaborate communication, spatial reasoning, problem-solving. Are they self-aware? Can we ever know that?

    Perhaps when we “high-functioning” mammals kill ourselves off, the octopods and cuttlefishes will build great civilizations.

    Probably not.

  17. Something about them creep me out !

  18. […] he has to keep the two pieces oriented correctly, so they fit together tightly. (source: Octopus Tool Use? RAD Thoughts) This example suggests to me that possibly the larger octopeds, who hide in coconut shells, are […]

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