Viral Video Meets Scientific Discovery

I don’t have the social media expertise to judge why particular videos go viral, what pushes certain clips to the tipping point that allows them to tear across the internet and demographics. Most of these videos seem to be of the squirrel-on-water-skis curiosity variety, but every once in a while, a significant scientific finding penetrates into collective internet consciousness.

Judging from my twitter feed (and the fact that even TMZ comes up in a Google search for the topic), I think it’s fair to say that “Coconut-carrying octopus” has officially moved into this thin slice of Venn diagram. If you’re not one of the 600,000 people who have already viewed the video, here it is:

The clip, showing a veined octopus in Indonesia using coconut shells as an oceanic mobile home comes from a paper published in Current Biology earlier this week, “Defensive tool use in a coconut-carrying octopus.” As the paper describes, this is more than mere curiosity, as “the use of tools has become a benchmark for cognitive sophistication” which has been seen before in chimpanzees and birds but not as often in the more “primitive” invertebrates (The microecos blog provides evidence that this is not, in fact, the first time invertebrates have been observed to use tools).

As the University of Chicago’s Jerry Coyne pointed out on his blog, the octopus’ use of the coconut shells is true tool use (unlike a hermit crab’s use of shells for protection), because it carries the shells around and constructs them into a home when needed. That awkward carrying motion, called “stilt-walking” by the authors, seen in the video above is actually what makes the shells a tool, because the octopus is actually more vulnerable when carrying the shell – the animals have deduced that the delayed benefit of using the shells is worth the immediate risk.

Why do scientists care, beyond the aesthetic value of “aw, look at the cute octopus…he thinks he’s people!”? Showing the capacity for tool use earlier in the evolutionary lineage (vertebrates have only been around for a fraction of the time, by comparison), suggests that “cognitive sophistication” occurred much earlier in the history of life on Earth than previously thought. That’s interesting for scientists reconstructing how complex thinking evolved, but also lends credence to the field of organismal biology, the idea that biological truths about humans, such as the development of language, can be studied in other species of animals. So even as such discoveries make us humans feel somewhat less unique – I always thought I was the best at making pillow forts – they still advance our view of how we came to be. I’m not sure the video has much to say about the climate change conference in Copenhagen, but it also possesses more than mere cuteness, lending it an additional viral quality – a bit of information is hopefully left behind as it spreads from host to host.

About Rob Mitchum (526 Articles)

Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.

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