For centuries, natural scientists understood the use of tools as an aid in certain day-to-day tasks to be an exclusive feature of human beings—a defining sign of our superior intelligence, compared to the lesser creatures of the animal kingdom.
More recently, however, that viewpoint has been forced to change, as more and more creatures have been observed using makeshift equipment in the natural world.
Among the most famous of nature’s tool-users are primates. Chimpanzees, human beings’ closest animal relatives, have long been observed using projectiles to hunt prey, and use pointed sticks and similar tools to catch ants and feed off honey. Chimps have been busying themselves in nature’s toolbox for many thousands of years: Archeological researchers studying an ancient chimpanzee habitat in the Cote d’Ivoire, on the west coast of Africa, have found evidence of the use of stone striking tools among chimp communities dating back more than 4,000 years.
Gorillas too have been found to use sticks to aid in walking and foraging, use boughs from trees and shrubs to cross flooded land, and have even been witnessed using poles to test the depth of murky water. While Sumatran orangutans have been observed using stones to smash open tough nuts and seeds, and use long sticks to “fish” fruit from out-of-reach branches.
It’s not just primates that share our love of makeshift gadgets and gizmos. Sea otters famously break open shellfish on flat stone paddles held on their chests. Lammergeyer vultures carry bones high into the sky and drop them onto boulders to smash them into easier to swallow shards. Elephants have been seen to use branches as flyswatters (and according to anecdotal evidence at least, to use rocks and heavy tree trunks to short out the power boxes on electrified fences). And perhaps most remarkable of all, a captive cockatoo has recently been observed shaping and using peeled strips of wood to retrieve otherwise unreachable objects, on the outside of its cage.
Far from being exclusive to humans, then, tool use seems quite widespread in the animal kingdom, and has even been observed below the waves.
One of the latest animals added to the ever-lengthening list of creatures that use tools is the octopus. What makes this case even more remarkable, however, is that the octopus in question uses its tools not to find or retrieve food but to camouflage and protect itself.
The veined octopus is a species found in the tropical seas of the western Pacific Ocean, where it preys on shellfish, including shrimp, crabs, and clams, in warm, sandy-bottomed bays and lagoons. The species first came to scientific attention in 2005, when an octopus off the coast of Indonesia was found to have adopted an almost unique method of moving around the seafloor: pulling six of its tentacles in against its body, the veined octopus uses its two remaining tentacles to “walk” bi-pedally across the seabed. Quite why the veined octopus “walks” in this manner is unclear, but it has been suggested that it may be an attempt at camouflage, by pulling its remaining legs into its body, the octopus may be trying to mimic the coconuts that so often bob through the shallow waters it inhabits.
More recently, however, in 2009, another veined octopus made headlines when researchers at the University of Melbourne observed it using debris from the seafloor in an ingenious and unique way. The octopus was found to collect discarded half coconut shells from the sea bed and, using its sucker-covered tentacles, arrange the shells around its body to form a makeshift armor. This tough plating ultimately provides the octopus with some much-needed rigid protection for its otherwise soft and fairly vulnerable body. This is believed to be the first known example of a sea creature producing defensive covering for itself.