Everyone’s heard of chimpanzees using relatively sophisticated tools to perform everyday tasks, like to eat their food or to hunt. But other animals, like elephants, octopuses, and even some species of fish also use tools to perform common actions. Here are twenty such silly animal anecdotes.
In Depth Measure Gorillas and orangutans have been observed using sticks to measure the depth of bodies of water. And when an orangutan saw local humans spear fishing, he was spotted using a stick to catch fish from a net.
“Checkmate!” Rooks are more than just a chess piece. They are large, raven like birds which, as in Aesop’s fable, can drop stones into a narrow glass of water to reach the worm floating inside.
Good Neighbors According to the elephants, Robert Frost was wrong when he asserted that fences make good neighbors. They have been known to take huge stones, carry them to an electrical fence, and drop it down! That either breaks the fence or cuts off the electricity. Elephants also use branches as fly-swatters or back-scratchers.
Can Openers Sea otters have been observed using stones to dislodge their prey. Once they have caught it and are again floating on the surface they also use stones to crack the shells of their dinner.
Stepstools Honey badgers, which live in Africa and parts of Asia, can use logs as tools. One was seen rolling a log through an underground cave. It then climbed on top of the log to reach a kingfisher fledgling trapped in the roots coming through the cave’s ceiling.
Modified Toy Common bottlenose dolphins blow bubbles, which they form into rings and play with, using their noses and bodies to keep the ring from floating to the surface. That’s a fun kind of tool to use!
Betty In an experiment with “Betty,” a laboratory crow, scientists laid an assortment of wires, some straight and some with hooked ends, in her cage. Then, they put a basket-shaped metal piece in a narrow glass for Betty to pull up. The scientists did not expect what the crow did: she picked a straight wire, bent it into a hook, and used it to hoist the basket out of the glass.
Handmade Pocketknives Captive capuchin monkeys were given a flint stone and a closed box containing fruits. The capuchins broke the rock into sharp shards which they used to cut into the box.
Built-in Water Guns Archer fish live in freshwater ponds, where they can surprise unsuspecting insects by squirting jets of water at crickets and other small insects sitting on leaves above the water. Their lower jaws have evolved to become larger to help them do this impressive feat.
Getting Into A Scrape Do you remember how much it hurts when you fall on concrete and graze your knee? When I learned to inline skate, I had to wear elbow and knee pads. Similarly, when dolphins forage for food on the ocean floor, they wear nose pads! They tear off pieces of sponge which they wrap around their noses to prevent getting scraped.
Ostrich Eggs Egyptian vultures use small rocks to crack the thick shells of ostrich eggs. Vultures that have never seen other birds using that technique are still able to manipulate the stone to get inside the egg, proving that it is a genetic trait and not learned.
Fishing for Insects A common practice in the animal world, using a stick to draw hard-to-reach insects from their homes, is not only for chimpanzees. Although the primates have perfected the art of termite-fishing, chewing the stick’s end so that it splits into paintbrush-like bristles, Green jays and brown-headed nuthatches also probe into tree bark to extract the insects lurking within. Woodpecker finches, which live on the Galapagos Islands, have short tongues. They make up for the lack by using sticks, twigs, or even cactus spines in the same manner.
Coconut Housing Veined octopuses have been seen picking up empty coconut shells, carrying them around, and then hiding inside. Although there is debate about whether this really qualifies as tool use, it is advanced cephalopod behavior.
Monkey Missile White-headed capuchins use tools to defend themselves. They can use sticks to hit snakes either in self-defense or to reclaim their stolen baby. But a human observer got the most absurd treatment. The capuchin picked up a much smaller squirrel monkey and hurled it at the human!
Cracking Up Waiting at a traffic light on a Japanese university campus, carrion crows watched cars run over their freshly-picked walnuts. A tragedy? No. The lights changed and the cars halted. The crows walked across the road, eating the exposed meat of the nuts. The cars were cracking the nuts! Similar behavior has been observed in American crows. (To find out more, see PBS’ article.)
Oyster Drive Like the crows with their walnut-dropping habits, seagulls drop live, unshelled oysters onto roads so that passing cars will crack them open. They drop so many that driving along waterway roads is sometimes hazardous!
Underwater Discovery In a recent experiment, captive stingrays were found using water as a tool in a manner similar to that of the archerfish. Scientists gave the stingray a tube, which was sealed on one end, containing some food. The stingray used jets of water to move the food through the tube towards them.
Well Diggers Despite their not having hands, elephants use their trunks as a tool. Elephants dig holes to drink water, but after they’re done they don’t leave the hole to evaporate. Instead, they use a special technique to keep it from drying out! They rip bark from a tree, chew it into a ball, drop the ball into the hole and cover the hole with sand. The elephants remember where their well is so that they can go get free refills whenever they like.
A Heron’s Bait Green herons, which live throughout North and Central America, drop insects, food, or other small things into the water to attract fish. Hooded crows behave similarly.
Stopping the Hole American badgers are carnivores who eat prairie dogs, some kinds of ground squirrel and other burrowing creatures, which live in underground tunnels. The badgers have developed a technique to catch them: they use stones and other objects as corks to stop the burrows’ exits. The hunted animal will have no emergency escape route, enabling the badger to catch it.