Ever wondered whether animals use tools?


(Bigstock)
November 17, 2013

When I was a kid, scientists thought humans were the only members of the animal kingdom that used tools. That idea was taught as an example of what separated humans from the rest of the pack. In the past 50 years, a lot has been learned about animal behavior. It’s now known that not only do animals use tools, but some species can actually make them. Granted, an elephant using a branch as a fly swatter can’t complete with humans printing a newspaper, but making and using tools is generally regarded as a sign of animal intelligence.

Chimpanzees are the most sophisticated toolmakers in the animal kingdom — besides us, that is! It’s been known for a long time that chimps smash nuts with stones, use leaves to collect rainwater and trim branches before inserting them into termite hills to snag a meal. More recently, chimps have been observed making spears. They sharpened sticks with their teeth and poked them forcefully into holes to search for prey.

Sea otters use stones to break open mussels, crabs and sea urchins while floating on their backs.

Bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia, have found a cool way to catch fish. Dolphins normally use echolocation (that’s using sound waves to help find things) to locate prey, but that doesn’t work on bottom-dwellers, which bury themselves in the sand. The dolphins learned to stir up bottom-
dwellers by wrapping marine sponges around their rostrums (snouts) and rooting around on the ocean floor. It’s not clear whether the sponges are used because they protect the dolphin’s rostrum or because they do a better job of exposing the prey.

Crows have been seen opening nuts by dropping them in front of moving cars. Once the car cracks the nuts with its tires, the crow swoops in for lunch. Crows sometimes use their beaks to whittle down sticks before poking them into logs to pull out bugs.

A female Western lowland gorilla was filmed using a long stick to apparently test the water depth before walking into a pool of water. Another was seen steadying herself with a branch as she reached down to forage plants from a body of water.

Elephants use sticks of different sizes as back scratchers. They also use leafy branches to swat at flying insects.

Orangutans on the Pacific island of Borneo use leaves like napkins, to wipe their mouths. They also strip leaves from branches and use them as makeshift instruments to change the call they use to scare off predators.

Striated herons have been seen using objects as bait for fishing. The bird drops insects, twigs or bits of leaf into the water and waits for a fish to swim to the surface toward the bait. When it does, the heron catches the fish with its bill.

Dresser crabs attach seaweed and other aquatic plants to their shells to camouflage themselves from predators.

So the next time you cut out a Kids­Post article with a pair of scissors, remember that you’re not the only animal who uses tools.

—Howard J. Bennett

Bennett is a Washington pediatrician. His Web site, www.howardjbennett.com, includes past KidsPost articles and other cool stuff.

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