They're just like us! 6 animals that use tools
From bonobos to bears, these creatures show an amazing sense of cognition and dexterity.
It may not seem like it when you are struggling to assemble furniture with one of those little allen wrenches, but tools like that are a fundamental key to humanity's success. For many years, anthropologists considered the ability to use tools a defining characteristic that separated us from other animals.
But over the past few decades, a number of animals have been observed using tools to solve particular problems in their environment including dolphins and octopi. And a few have even gone to the next step – creating tools from surrounding materials to suit very specific needs.
Below, we take a closer look at six of these animals.
It turns out that shelled nut is no challenge for a Capuchin monkey. Scientists from the University of Oxford recently discovered a trove of 700-year-old tools used by the animal to open cashews and other nuts. As the Washington Post reported, "They place the cashew on an anvil surface about four times larger than the stone they hold in their little hands. They arrange it just so, then they arrange their feet just so. Then clack, clack, clack." The researchers said that the finding “prompts us to look at whether early human behavior was influenced by their observations of monkeys using stones as tools.”
Most elephants are thought to be tool-users. (Photo: John Michael Evan Potter/Shutterstock)
If you've ever spent time in an area where elephants and people regularly interact, you might recognize their most common tool: the branch-as-fly-swatter. These intelligent beasts with long memory spans were found to not only pull branches off trees to utilize as swishers to keep bugs off their skin, but, importantly, to modify those branches for the most effective use. Conducted in India, the study included 13 Asian elephants and found that eight of the group modified branches that were given to them to make them more effective (using their trunks and feet to prune them according to their tastes).
According to new findings published this summer, the newest addition to the list of tool-using animals is the bonobo (a type of great ape). Itai Roffman of Haifa University's International Graduate Center of Evolution in Israel found that six out of 10 bonobos used tools. Previously, individual bonobos were known to use tools – but his study showed that this wasn't an isolated phenomenon. The animals used tools like sticks and nearby antlers to help dig up food buried under rocks, as well as using long sticks as levers to move heavy rocks out of the way. Roffman's research – conducted at a zoo in Germany and a wildlife sanctuary in Iowa – shows that the foraging techniques of bonobos resemble those used by the earliest Stone Age humans.
Grizzly bears are capable of using tools to get to their favorite foods. (Photo: David Rasmus/Shutterstock)
Bears love snacks – especially human snacks. In a 2014 study, six of eight grizzly bears utilized nearby boxes, which they stacked on top of each other to reach a dangling doughnut. That the bears were able to stack boxes reveals a high level of thinking ability. "Cognition is really describing the part of the brain that actually thinks, rather than reacting based on instinct or emotion," veterinarian Lynne Nelson, assistant director of the Washington State University Bear Research Education and Conservation Center, who led the study, told LiveScience. "In this case, it's thinking about solving a problem by manipulating an inanimate object."
Crows are highly intelligent birds, and have even figured out how to create tools, as well as use them. (Photo: Aleskey Karpenko/Shutterstock)
Besides humans, crows are the only animals on the planet that are known to both craft and use hooks. According to research from the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom, wild crows on the island of New Caledonia love a specific kind of beetle larvae found in rotting trees, but can't get to it with claws or pecking beaks. So crows have learned to fish for the bugs by making tools out of skinny sticks and tweaking one end into a hook. Crows aren't born knowing how to to make these tools. They teach it to their young, so only crows in this particular area use hooks, though crows in other places are known for using different tools. For example, some crows in busy American cities can be seen dropping walnuts in front of moving cars to crack them, and even using scrap paper as a rake or sponge.
Otters use a variety of tools to pry open clams and snails. (Photo: Kirsten Walquist/Shutterstock)
If you've ever tried to pry open a still-alive clam or oyster, you know it's not easy. You need both strength and the right tools. Driftwood, broken pieces of glass bottles, empty clam shells and rocks are all part of otters' toolkits, so they can get to the clam and snail-meat they most prefer to eat. Otter pups learn from their mothers which tools work best for extracting various types of seafood. The fact that they use different tools for different jobs is an advanced use of an object – since the otter needs to identify which object will work best for the job.
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