Terry has a master's degree in environmental communications and has taught in a variety of settings.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And there are examples of creatures without fur or feathers that use tools as well. Octopi will stack coconut shells that are halved by people and carry them along until they are needed for shelter. Bola spiders will make a sticky ball of silk that's normally used for webs, throw it at a flying insect, and reel the insect in for dinner. And in a particularly sneaky example of tool use, American alligators and mugger crocodiles (India) will collect small sticks to attract birds looking for nesting material. When the birds get too close, they become a meal. The remarkable thing is that they only do this during the bird's nesting season.
So is this genetic? Learned? A sign of an animal intelligence? The answer is, it depends. In the New Caledonian crows it seems to be a combination of learning and inherited traits. In the bola spiders it's probably just genetics. When intelligent animals, like chimpanzees and gorillas, use tools, it tends to be in a more innovative, flexible way. Regardless, the line between people and animals when it comes to tool use has gotten very blurry.
A tool is an external object used to accomplish a goal. Tool use has now been found in many types of animal groups, including mammals, birds, reptiles, and some invertebrates. Depending on the animal and the tool, it may be learned behavior or it may be inherited behavior. Knowledge of tools and how to use them is actually passed down from one generation to the next - not just among humans, but in other animal species as well. When this happens, it becomes part of the community's culture. Tool use among more intelligent animals is more likely to be innovative, and less likely to be a genetically inherited trait.
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