Tool use by animals

Tool use by animals

Some animals, especially primates, use tools to perform simple tasks such as getting food or grooming.

Types of Tools

There are some different definitions of a tool, such as:

The most common are sticks or bits of stone.


Tool use implies an animal has knowledge of the relationship between objects and their effects.

If an object is placed out of reach on a towel that that itself is in reach, dogs and children will pull the towel to bring the object closer to them. But does this show knowledge about the nature of the world (declarative memory) or recall of rules already learnt (procedural)?

* Sticks can be used to break into termite nests for food or fight rivals. They are sometimes used for grooming.
*Stones can be used, again, to fight rivals. However, they may also be used to carve bits of wood by more intelligent animals.

Some species, such as the Woodpecker Finch of the Galapagos Islands, use particular tools as an essential part of their foraging behavior. However, these behaviors are often quite inflexible and cannot be applied effectively in new situations. Several species have now been shown to be capable of more flexible tool use. A well known example is Jane Goodall's observation of chimpanzees "fishing" for termites in their natural environment, and captive great apes are often observed to use tools effectively; several species of corvids have also been trained to use tools in controlled experiments, or use bread crumbs for bait-fishing. [ [ Bait fishing] ]

Tool use by specific groups of animals


Research in 2007 shows that chimpanzees in the Fongoli savannah sharpen sticks to use as spears when hunting, considered the first evidence of systematic use of weapons in a species other than humans. [] [ [ Chimps Use "Spears" to Hunt Mammals, Study Says ] ] It has also been observed in the 1970s that some chimpanzees/bonobos use sticks as probes to collect ants as shown below. Also they have been observed cutting down the stick with their fingers and teeth so that it can fit into a hole in the ants' nest. They have even been observed using two tools, a stick to dig into the ant nest and a 'brush' made from grass stems with their teeth to collect the ants. In west Africa chimpanzees have been observed banging nuts against a stone in order to crack it. Some troops use another stone whilst others use wooden clubs (heavy sticks). In one troop of chimpanzees it was observed that a female was using a stick to break into a bee hive to acquire honey. In an experiment a group of chimpanzees were presented with a model leopard with a moving head. There was soon commotion as leopard are one of the chimpanzees' predators. They were then observed clubbing the model with heavy quarterstaffs (fallen trees and/or branches). They continued doing this until the moving head had fallen off.

Gorillas have been observed to (as shown above) use sticks to measure the depth of water.

Orangutans have also been observed to use sticks to measure the depth of water. It has also been observed that Orangutans in Sumatra use sticks to acquire seeds from a certain fruit. This is because the lining of the inside of the fruit has hairs that sting. On the island of Kaja a male Orangutan was observed using a pole to acquire fish from a net after observing local humans spear fishing.

Capuchins have also been observed banging nuts between two stones in order to crack it. They have also been observed using stones to crack into shells. In captivity Capuchins have been observed during experiment to make flint knives after banging a piece of flint against the floor until it broke and using the smaller, sharper pieces to cut into a box with fruit. Some scientists believe that this (the above) isn't because of some higher intelligence in Capuchins but an interesting side effect of their aggressive and destructive nature.


Many birds have been shown as capable of using tools.By Jones and Kamil's definition above, an Egyptian vulture dropping a bone on a rock would not be using a tool since the rock cannot be seen as an extension of the body. However the use of a rock manipulated using the beak to crack an ostrich egg would qualify the Egyptian vulture as a tool user. , including parrots, corvids and a range of passerines, have been noted as tool users.Nathan J. Emery (2006) Cognitive ornithology: the evolution of avian intelligence. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (2006) 361, 23–43 [] ]

New Caledonian Crows have been observed in the wild to use stick tools with their beaks to extract insects from logs. While young birds in the wild normally learn this technique from elders, a laboratory crow named "Betty" improvised a hooked tool from a wire with no prior experience. [ [ Crow making tools] ] The Woodpecker Finch from the Galapagos Islands also uses simple stick tools to assist it in obtaining food. In captivity, a young Cactus Finch learned to imitate this behaviour by watching a Woodpecker Finch in an adjacent cage. Crows in urban Japan have innovated a technique to crack hard-shelled nuts by dropping them onto cross walks and letting them be run over and cracked by cars. They then retrieve the cracked nuts when the cars are stopped at the red light. Striated Herons ("Butorides striatus") use bait to catch fishNorris (1975), Boswall (1983), Walsh et al. (1985), Robinson (1994)] .


As of 2005, scientists have observed limited groups of Bottlenose Dolphins around the Australian Pacific using a basic tool. When searching for food on the sea floor, many of these dolphins were seen tearing off pieces of sponge and wrapping them around their "bottle nose" to prevent abrasions. [cite web | url= | title=Cultural transmission of tool use in bottlenose dolphins | accessdate=2006-10-24|]


Elephants show a remarkable ability to use tools, despite having no hands. Instead, they use their trunk like an arm. Elephants have been observed digging holes to drink water and then ripping bark from a tree, chewing it into the shape of a ball, filling in the hole and covering over it with sand to avoid evaporation. The elephant later went back to this spot for a drink. They also often use branches to swat flies or scratch themselves. [cite journal
last = Holdrege
first = Craig
title = Elephantine Intelligence
journal = In Context
issue = 5
publisher = The Nature Institute
date = Spring 2001
url =
accessdate = 2007-10-30
] .Elephants have also been known to drop very large rocks onto an electric fence to either ruin the fence or cut off the electricitycite book
last = Poole
first = Joyce
title = Coming of Age with Elephants
publisher = Trafalgar Square
date = 1996
location = Chicago, Illinois
pages = 131-133, 143-144, 155-157
isbn = 034059179X


Sea otters have been observed using stones to hammer abalone shells off the rocks. They hammer at a rate of 180 blows per minute and do it in three dives.

See also

* Animal cognition#Tool and weapon use
* Bird intelligence#Tool use
* Cetacean intelligence#Use of tools
* Elephant intelligence#Tool use


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