(When this poet was in school, toolmaking was on the shortlist of characteristics supposed to separate animal from human. Perhaps we are moving closer to a return to the ancient wisdoms worldwide which teach that there actually is no difference ~ that a bird or a beast is every bit as much a brother or sister as is a human being. But then, we would have to learn first to treat even one another reasonably and respectfully, right?…)
There are endless instances of tool use among primates. Chimpanzees fashion twigs for termite fishing, use stone and wooden tools to crack open nuts, and sharpen spears out of sticks to hunt. Meanwhile, gorillas use walking poles to measure water depth, orangutans can pick a lock with a paperclip, and capuchins make stone knives by banging flint against the floor until the pieces are sharp. Primate tool use has also been studied by scientists for centuries. Charles Darwin discussed tool use among baboons in his 1871 book The Descent of Man, and Jane Goodall famously studied chimpanzees and their use of tools in the 1960s.
However, primates aren’t the only animals that can use tools. To prove it, here’s our list of 13 creatures from across the animal kingdom that use tools, from tiny insects to massive mammals.
Aside from primates, crows show the most ingenuity in the animal kingdom. Their many clever tricks include manipulating sticks and twigs to extract insects from logs, dropping walnuts in front of moving cars to crack them, and using scrap paper as a rake or sponge. A 2018 study even revealed that crows can build compound tools, as crows observed by the researchers were able to attach small objects together to create a stick long enough to reach a food source.
Elephants have a remarkable ability to use tools, utilizing their dextrous trunk like an arm. They use branches as back-scratchers, use leaves to swat flies, and chew on bark to make it spongy enough to absorb scarce drinking water. But perhaps the most stunning accomplishment of elephants is their artistic ability. Some zookeepers have given their elephants paintbrushes, and the sensitive beasts have shown quite a propensity for painting.
Most birds share one remarkable tool-related trait in common: the ability to build a nest. Bowerbirds, usually found in Australia or New Guinea, take it one step further. They do it for romance. To lure a mate, the male builds a complicated bower, an obsessively constructed structure that often utilizes items as diverse as bottle caps, beads, broken glass or whatever else he can find that looks pretty and attracts attention.4of 13
The intelligence of dolphins is well-known, but since they have flippers instead of hands, many experts didn’t think they used tools. At least not until 2005, when bottlenose dolphins in Australia were seen tearing off pieces of sponge and wrapping them around their noses, apparently to prevent abrasions while they hunted on the sea floor.
• Egyptian Vultures
Birds are among the most prolific tool users, and one of the most startling examples is the Egyptian vulture. One of the vulture’s favorite foods is an ostrich egg, but the giant eggshell can be difficult to break. To compensate, the vulture manipulates rocks with its beak and pounds the rocks into the shell until it cracks.
The octopus has been heralded as the most intelligent invertebrate on the planet, and its use of tools is often improvised. Some octopuses have been observed carrying two halves of a shell. When threatened by predators, they close the shells over themselves to hide. Furthermore, the blanket octopus has been known to tear off tentacles from jellyfish and wield them as weapons when attacked.
• Woodpecker Finches
There are several species of finch that use tools, but the most famous might be the Galapagos woodpecker finch. Since its beak can’t always squeeze into the small holes where insects live, the bird compensates by finding a twig of the perfect size and using it as a tool to pry out its meal. This characteristic has even earned it the nicknames “tooling-using finch” and “carpenter finch.”8of 13
Insects also use tools, especially social insects such as ants. Leafcutter ants have even created an advanced agricultural society in which they cultivate fungus to use as a food source for their larvae. The ants cut pieces from leaves and other vegetation such as grasses, which are then brought to the fungus to be used as a nutritional substrate. The ants also carry waste away from their fungal gardens and deposit it in a refuse dump.
• Striated Herons
Striated herons use their smarts to be better fishermen. Rather than wading through water waiting for their prey to surface, these herons use fishing lures to coax fish to within striking distance. Some herons have even been seen sprinkling food like bread crumbs over the water to entice fish.10of 13
• Sea Otters
Even the strong jaws of the sea otter aren’t always enough to pry open a tasty clam or oyster. That’s when the charismatic marine mammal gets wise. An otter regularly carries a stone around on its belly and uses it to pound open its mollusk meal.
• Decorator Crabs
Even crabs get in on the tool-using act. Their claws are good for manipulating objects, and decorator crabs got their name for a reason. They often “decorate” themselves by covering their bodies with sedentary animals and plants like sea anemones and seaweed. This decoration is usually for the purpose of camouflage, but some crabs decorate themselves with noxious organisms such as stinging anemones to scare off predators.12of 13
One of the most famous tool users is the beaver. These animals construct dams to protect themselves from predators and to provide easy access to food and gentle swimming, with some dams growing to as long as 2,790 feet. Beavers build dams by cutting down trees and packing them with mud and stones.13of 13
Parrots may be the most intelligent birds in the world, and examples of their use of tools are numerous. Some pet owners may discover this firsthand when a trickster bird uses a piece of metal or plastic to lift open its cage lock. Palm cockatoos have also been known to pad their beaks with leaves to twist open nuts, like a human would use a towel to improve traction when opening a soda bottle.
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