Widely considered to be the most empathetic animals, elephants are also surprisingly skilled at using tools. Electric fences are used in many regions to contain elephants or keep them from crossing onto human-inhabited land. But these brilliant animals quickly discovered that they could safely touch (or tear up) the fences with their tusks, which don’t conduct electricity. Even more impressive are the elephants who used tools to break the fences. In her memoir, famed elephant researcher Dr. Joyce Poole described how some elephants would drop logs or rocks on the fences’ wires to disable them. Other researchers have observed elephants plug up a water hole with bark to prevent other animals from drinking from them. The elephants returned later to their hidden water hole to drink.
Many animals use camouflage to go unseen by potential prey, but alligators and crocodiles might have the most creative use of disguise. The American alligator and the mugger crocodile, native to south Asia, balance sticks on their heads just above the water’s surface. Then, when birds seeking building materials for their nests attempt to collect the floating sticks, the reptiles snap them up. These gators and crocs are so in tune with bird behavior that they wait until the bird’s breeding season, when they build nests, before attempting to lure birds. Researchers believe this is the only example of a non-human animal using a lure to catch its prey (other than the deep sea, angler fish).
Sea otters are unique among marine mammals for their ability to use stone tools. The aquatic critters are often seen using jaggedrocks to crack open the shells of the prey. Clams, crabs, abalone, and mussel shells are no match for a rock-wielding otter. Sea otters catch their food in the water before swimming to the surface to enjoy their meal. Once above water, they float on their backs, balancing the shelled animal on their chest, and use their stone anvil to smack the shell until it cracks. The otters even have a special pouch that they use to carry their favorite smashing rock. In the folds under their arms, sea otters have pockets of loose skin for storage.
Tool use isn’t limited to vertebrates. Even insects have been known to use simple tools. For example, some species of ants use pebbles or sand to block or hide the entrance to their hill and keep invaders out of their colony. Not content to always play defense, cone ants use a similar technique to block the entrances of hills of other ant species. These ants have been observed dropping small rocks down the tunnel entrances of nearby ant colonies, trapping their enemies inside. This stone-dropping tactic prevents the rival ants from competing for food. Cone ants work in teams to block rival colonies and are often so successful that they end up depleting the other species’ population.
Many spiders trap their prey in webs or orbs made of silk. But the bola spider has an unusual hunting technique that could give Spiderman a run for his money. Rather than spinning a large web, bola spiders hang a single strand of silk with a sticky blob on the end called a bola. The spiders lure their unfortunate prey, typically male moths, to them by emitting a scent that resembles the smell of female moth pheromones. Bola spiders then skillfully swing the sturdy silk line and use it to capture their prey. Some bola spiders produce silk lines with multiple bolas along them, apparently aiming to increase the likelihood of catching moths.
Don’t let their adorable appearance fool you. Shrikes have a hunting technique that’s as vicious as it is effective. The ferocious predator, which has been nicknamed the butcherbird, kills much of its prey by forcefully snapping their necks. Once dead, the birds impale the body on sharp objects, like thorns and twigs. In some cases, these killing machines have even been observed using barbed wire to impale the insects, rodents, birds, and small reptiles that make up their diet. Shrikes are extremely proficient hunters, able to easily take down animals that are as large or even larger than their own tiny bodies.
Like most animals, wasps take protecting their young very seriously. Several species of wasps build their nest by burrowing tunnels in the sand. The wasp stings and paralyzes an insect that will serve as soon-to-hatch babies’ first meal. The still-living prey is dragged back to its nest, where it is placed in the nest with the wasp’s egg. The wasp then seals their nest with sand or small rocks to prevent predators from feeding on the eggs or their intended meal. After hatching, the larva feed on the paralyzed prey and, once mature, must burrow its way out of the tunnels.
Bowerbirds prove that grand romantic gestures aren’t just for romantic comedies. The bird native to Australia and New Guinea build elaborate structures, not for shelter but for love. The male bowerbirds’ courtship ritual includes building a bower, a hut-like nest with walls made of twigs, leaves, straw, and mud that sits on the ground. The bird collects colorful materials like bottle caps, shells, broken glass, and berries to decorate the bower’s inside and surroundings. Bowerbirds are also notorious thieves, stealing materials from other birds’ bowers. The purpose of all this work is to attract the attention of a potential mate. Unlike a regular bird’s nest, the purpose of a bower is used only for mating, not for laying eggs or sheltering young.
Between shape-shifting, camouflage skin, and ink release, octopuses have plenty of quality defense mechanisms. Still, their bodies are boneless and completely soft, other than their beaks, making them extremely vulnerable to injury. The veined octopus has found a clever way to protect itself from injury: a makeshift suit of armor made from discarded coconut shells. The cephalopod stack and carry two halves of a coconut shell under its body. At a moment’s notice, the shells are produced, and the octopus climbs inside, closing the two halves around its body. Researchers who studied the octopus’s tool use were stunned by its ability to plan ahead for protection against future attacks.
Woodpecker Finches Use Cactus Spines To Drag Bugs From Trees
The woodpecker finch’s short tongue makes it difficult for the bird to eat insects that live in tree trunks. Rather than go hungry or find a new food source, these finches snap off cactus spines and use them to impale or drag out their prey. The bird may also use twigs to extract bugs and larvae from underneath the bark. Woodpecker finches are more likely to use tools to forage during the dry season and in arid climates where food is scarce. As much as half of the food may be collected using these tools, making the birds more frequent tool-users than chimpanzees and any other primates except humans.
With few exceptions, rodents aren’t big tool users. Beavers and their dams are one exception. Degus are another.In a study in Japan, degus in a lab could be trained to use rakes to grab food. The rodents were placed on one side of a fence with food on the other side. After providing the degus with a rake, they trained them to use it to pull seeds to their side of the fence. After two months of practice, all of the degus were able to use the rakes. The experiment is the first time rodents have been trained successfully to use any tool. The same technique has been used to train other animals that don’t use tools in the wild.
Orangutans in captivity use a variety of tools with very little intervention from humans. In one experiment, orangutans used stone flints to cut open a food container and to open a puzzle box. Captive orangutans have also been observed for years using handsaws and axes. This behavior is very different from the orangutans in the wild. However, wild apes do use tools to perform simple tasks. For example, orangutans have been observed using sticks to scrape the seeds out of fruit, while others use leaves to make themselves sound more formidable.
Honey badgers are skilled climbers that have frequently been caught on video using tools to reach high places. In captivity, the clever animals will stack mud, rocks, sticks, and anything around them to help them climb. A video that went viral in 2014 featured a honey badger can be seen using everything from logs and stones to rakes, shovels, and tires to climb out of its enclosure. In the wild, honey badgers have also been observed carrying logs to trees to get out-of-reach food, including honeybee hives, which the animals are particularly fond of. Honey badgers are so determined to reach honey that some honey farmers have to hang their hives away from any tools they can climb.
The Egyptian vultures use a few tools to make their lives easier. One of the mainstays of the bird’s diet is the giant ostrich egg. The egg has an extremely thick shell that usually requires a hammer or drill for humans to crack. Egyptian vultures solve this problem by making their own hammer using flat, rounded rocks held tightly in its beak to pound the eggshell until it cracks. The birds have also been observed engaged in the unusual activity of rolling wool with sticks. The wool is used in the construction of the vulture’s nest.
In 2014, a researcher near Wales spotted a puffin using a stick to scratch itself. But it would be another four years before she could finally capture the action using motion capture cameras in Wales and Iceland. The camera recorded two different puffins hundreds of miles apart, scratching their backs and chest with sticks. Tool use had never been observed before in the birds, which, like other seabirds, had not been considered to be particularly intelligent. Parrots are the only other birds that have been observed using sticks to scratch. The researchers believe that the difficulty in observing seabirds may have caused us to miss other signs of tool use. “‘Seabirds’ cognitive capacities may have been considerably underestimated,” they wrote.
A species of wrasse, a family of brightly colored tropical fish, was the first fish confirmed to use tools. In a video captured in 2011 by a diver in the Great Barrier Reef, the orange-dotted tusk fish can be seen digging a cockle out of the sand and carrying it some distance in its mouth to a large rock. The fish then proceeded to slam the shellfish against the rock until it opened. Similar behaviors had been described in other wrasses, but the images represented the first photo evidence of the ability. The images were published in a scientific journal, and the researchers stressed that the discovery opened a world of possibilities. “We really need to spend more time filming underwater…It really is the final frontier down there,” they said in a press release.
Grizzly bears aren’t just fearsome hunters. They’re also highly-intelligent creatures that can use tools to acquire food. In a 2014 Washington State University study, researchers found that when the bears were presented with treats that hanging was just out of reach, they quickly figured out how to solve the problem. They pushed tree stumps under the dangling treats, then climbed on top to reap the rewards. The study wasn’t the first evidence that bears can use tools, although it was the most compelling. Brown bears have been observed using rocks covered in barnacles as part of their grooming regimen.
Grooming is a common trait across animals of all types. But primates are among a few animals that use tools to aid their grooming routine. Mandrills may look menacing, but the apes actually spend a good amount of time fussing over hygiene. They fashion a tool out of grass and sticks to clean out their ears and prevent ear infections. Some mandrills use whittle twigs to clean under their nails. Macaques in Thailand have been known to swipe hair straight from people’s heads to use as floss. Chimps use small sticks to groom their skin, and bonobos sometimes use “sponges” made of chewed leaves and moss.
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