Top Ten Tool Users
Animals of all kinds figure them out
By Seamus McAfee
Scientists once thought that tool use was the defining feature of humans. While the average dog and cat are regrettably, a few years in evolution away from grabbing the toolbox and tuning up the family car, many animals also have some limited tool use. An animal using tools is a a sign of extraordinary intelligence that shows an ability to manipulate an object as an extension of one’s own body.
Here’s a collection of the top ten tool-users in the animal kingdom — and all without the use of a tool belt!
Humans’ closest relatives are some of the most prolific tool users in the animal kingdom. But it’s not all “monkey-see, monkey-do” – chimpanzees actually learned to use tools by themselves without imitating humans, with stone hammers found at a chimp settlement dating back more than 4,300 years.
And in an ability that might make one second-guess the realism of Planet of the Apes, chimps can even fashion crude weapons to hunt other primates.
Perhaps their most common tool use, however, is much more peaceful, as chimps have developed special tool kits for “fishing” for a meal of ants.
Crows show some of the greatest versality with tools among their fellow birds. With Macgyver-like cunning, crows have been shown using twigs and leaves to get at otherwise-unreachable food. In other cases crows have been show dropping rocks into a pitcher to raise the water level so that they could drink from it easily, or dropping hard nuts on roads and picking up the crushed contents when cars have run them over and when the light has turned red again.
No sign yet of what tools they’ve devised to outwit their age-old enemy, the scarecrow.
Elephants are born with a fantastic tool of a nose right on the end of their face, but are nevertheless among the more crafty of the tool users. These proficient pachyderms have been known to drop logs or rocks on electric fences to cut off the charge so that they could cross them.
Elephants have also used branches to scratch themselves or swat flies, and have even been taught to paint by holding a brush — although that means they’re in a zoo, which we don’t approve of. In the wild, they’ve been observed covering water holes with bark to hide them from other animals, proving that one of the things elephants don’t forget is that family comes first.
Dolphins are already renowned for protecting people in the oceans by ramming sharks, as well as for the silly tricks they’re made to do like balancing balls on their noses. But apparently their snouts are a bit more sensitive than imagined, as a group of dolphins in Australia was observed using sponges to protect their beaks while rooting around on the seabed.
The dolphins seem to prefer the damage avoided to noses, while the local sharks prefer the soft Nerf-like blows to their gills.
Perhaps not the most diverse of tool users, but by far the most adorable, sea otters will use rocks to bash open abalones they’ve retrieved from the ocean floor, then casually dine on their opened meal using their own furry stomach as a plate.
The sea otters also wrap themselves in kelp as an anchor while resting and eating in groups, creating a sight resembling a harbor of hairy boats. A definite sign of intelligence, though you think they’d know to wait a half hour after eating before swimming.
An eight-armed knight would be undefeatable in battle, but would probably find it impossible to woo any fair maiden. But by collecting coconut shells as portable armor, that’s exactly what many octopuses resemble, taking in the honor as the only invertebrate known to use tools, and the most chivalrous as well. Octopuses can even carry their shelter with them as they travel along the ocean floor, helping protect them from potential predators and thoroughly outshine jealous hermit crabs.
Rats, despite their constant presence in many cities’ subway platforms, have been unable to figure out how to ride the rail themselves. Still, they do have the ability to use tools. And even if you scramble onto the nearest chair at the notion of a scurrying rodent with tools, don’t be alarmed. Degus, a relative of chinchillas, are more appealing than your subway rat, and are only interested in using tools as makeshift rake to obtain food.
The skill was taught to domesticated degus by the Japanese, who hope to next teach the rodents to rake the leaves in their backyard.
While Polly probably wouldn’t turn down a cracker, he seems much more to prefer a good back scratch. Probably the smartest birds, parrots have been shown to use tools like sticks to relieve an itch or loose feathers on hard-to-reach areas.
Parrots may also pad their beaks with leaves to twist open stubborn nuts, like a human might use a rag to force open a pickle jar. With these kind of smarts, you’d think they’d be known for more than just perching on pirates’ shoulders.
Striated herons have some of the best bait in the world, and have never even been to a Bass Pro Shop. Certain herons in Southern Japan have been recorded using insects, berries, twigs, and other objects to lure fish to the surface before snatching them up for dinner, and have even been seen trimming objects like twigs to the perfect size to attract their prey.
While striated herons are plenty capable of fishing without using bait, the lures they use tend to yield bigger catches, or at least that’s what they’re required to say in their endorsement deals.
Robin Hood took on all challengers in any archery contest, but he’d probably have met his match if this fish had stepped up to the plate. With all the precision of the hero of Sherwood Forest, the fish can take down its insect prey by knocking them from a roost with a jet of water. The fish can even adjust its aim to account for water refraction or the curve of the water jet from gravity.
Young fish perfect their marksmanship through experience, making them truly the “spitting image” of their parents.
What do you say? Have you seen animals using tools? Maybe even a pet at home? Tell us in a comment or on Facebook.