Thursday, February 07, 2013

Tool Using Animals

Orangutan spearfishing.
We humans like to think we are so damn smart, you know, we make tools and such. Some claim human toolmaking is proof of God. The fact is, a whole plethora of animals are adept at making and using tools.

Building Houses
Humans make houses and even build whole cities. So do birds and prairie dogs. Weaver finches make elegantly constructed nests. Octopi will take a stone and carve out a proper den for themselves. Termites build temperature controlled highrises.

Manipulating The Environment
Beaver dam complete with spillway.
Human scientists are still trying to figure out why beavers build dams. Theories include underwater food storage, protection from predators, to create an environment for the growth of yummy tubers, and because they just hate the sound of running water. Damsel fish plant, tend, and harvest fields of a particular fungus. Ants, of course, care for herds of aphids like tiny sheep ranchers.

We pride ourselves in thinking that nothing is more human than making and using weapons.
A lot of animals have come up with clever ways to create weapons. You've already seen the orangutan spear. The blanket octopus (above) will take the tendrils from a Portuguese Man O'War and wield them like a poisonous whip. Several birds are know to steal human bread and use bread crumbs as bait for fishing. Elephants will use their trunks to throw rocks at predators or annoying humans. The cleverest weapon user is the dolphin. He will grab a poisonous sea snake by the mid-section and swim through a school of fish swing the snake around. The angry snake bites at the fish. The paralyzed fish make an easy feast for the dolphin.

Tool Boxes
Crows and ravens have long been observed choosing and using twigs as tools to get at nutritious insects. What is less well known is that if they find a particularly useful tool they keep it and use it again and again. Some birds have collected a number of twigs and keep them together in a kind of tool box.

A fascinating blog on the subject is Animals Don't Think, kept by someone who knows animals are, in fact, very good thinkers.

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