Do Animals Use Tools?

Instructor: Terry Dunn

Terry has a master's degree in environmental communications and has taught in a variety of settings.

Do animals use tools? If so, how? Can all sorts of animals use tools? And what is a tool anyway? Here you will learn the answers to those questions and others.

What is a Tool?

Quick. Name some tools. Did you think of hammers, screwdrivers, and saws? Most likely you did. Twigs, rocks or coconut shells were probably not on your list. But if you were an animal - other than a human, that is - that might be exactly what you would use as a tool. And some animals don't even have the benefit of hands and fingers, yet some of them still use tools.

So what is a tool? Not everyone agrees, and the definitions are sometimes convoluted. Case in point, one of the most widely accepted definitions of a tool is described by scientist Benjamin Beck: 'Tool use is the external employment of an unattached environmental object to alter more efficiently the form, position, or condition of another object, another organism, or the user itself...' - it actually goes on from there, but hopefully you get the idea.

Or perhaps this one by Jane Goodall, the first person to formally observe tool use in animals, is an easier one to wrap your brain around: 'Use of an external object as a functional extension of mouth or beak, hand or claw, in the attainment of an immediate goal'.

Tool Use in Animals

For a long time, people thought the distinguishing difference between animals and humans was that people use tools. But that was before Jane Goodall spotted wild chimpanzees tweaking twigs and sticking them into termite mounds to gather up insects to eat. The chimps were clearly using the twigs as tools.

As it turns out, chimps also use tools
Chimpanzee group

It seems that with chimps at least, tools have been used for a while. Chimp-designed stone hammers have been found on the Ivory Coast that are 4,300 years old. Making tools and sharing techniques for using them is sometimes even passed onto other members of the community. When that knowledge is passed from one generation to the next one, it becomes part of the culture - whether of chimps, humans, or other animals.

Watching chimps use those twigs opened up the possibility to researchers that they could be using other tools, and so could other animals. As it turns out, chimpanzees even use 'toolkits'. In a Congo study on chimps that were gathering army ants, researchers found chimps with toolkits that had 3 to 4 tools, including ones for breaking into the nests and ones for gathering the insects.

Other Examples of Animal Tool Use

What's surprising is how many different types of animals use tools. Gorillas have been photographed using sticks to measure the depth of water before crossing a swamp, and orangutans use bundles of leaves to whistle in an effort to foil the plans of predators. But those are some of our closer primate relatives. The examples of other types of animals using tools have started to fill the pages of scientific journals.

New Caledonian crows use tools in ways that rival chimpanzees. They use leaves, twigs, pebbles and even their own feathers as tools to solve elaborate puzzles that take several steps. For instance, in captivity, researchers watched as a crow figured out how to get a piece of food that was out of reach, first by using the edge of a glass to bend a piece of wire, then using the hooked wire to reach a stick that was long enough to reach the piece of food. The crow made a tool to reach another tool that could grab the piece of food.

The New Caledonian crow is one of the most adept tool users in the animal world
Illustration of a New Caledonian crow

Elephants have been watched dropping logs and rocks to short out electric fences. Asian elephants will create specialty branches that are just the right size to swat at insects that are bugging them.

Elephants are considered to be one of the most intelligent animals
Adult and baby elephants

Dolphins are known for their smarts, but without hands or trunks, it's harder for them to use tools. Yet they do. They sometimes use marine sponges, held in their mouths, to stir up the sand at the ocean bottom looking for prey.

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