Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tool Use

For the last couple decade the definition of being human (and separate from animals) has relied on the concept of tool use. Humans use tools, animals don't. After our definitions which were based on language, culture, and emotions were thrown out, we had to settle on tool usage. When it was determined that chimpanzees use tools to gain access to food, we started to lose what little ground we had. Over the past several decades we have found species after species that uses tools to make things simpler or gain access to resources. So this definition will eventually be busted as well.
British scientists have been working with rooks (same family as crows) for many years and are amazed by their clever use (and even invention) of tools. These are not trained behavior but are the result of problem solving. I watched a video recently where a rook lowered a hooked piece of plastic that it had been given into a beaker in order to snag a tiny little bucket with treats. The scientists were impressed by this. The rook then carried the bucket to the top of it's cage to eat the treat. When it couldn't reach it with it's beak, it hopped back down to the hook and fished the food out with that. Impressive tool use and understanding of how the tool worked.

This past week, scientists found evidence of tool use in octopuses. Divers took video of an octopus finding and unburying a coconut shell. It hollowed the shell out and then carried it along the ocean bottom. If attacked it will overturn the shell and hide under it. Or if it finds two shells it will bring them together to form a protective ball. Octopuses have long been known for their intelligence but the use of tools had not been documented in the species before. Another crack in the human/animal definition. This video has been circling the internet for a couple days now, partially because of it's amazing discovery but mostly because it's pretty funny to watch the octopus run. If nothing else I hope it reminds people that animals are far smarter than we give them credit for. And tool use is no longer a valid difference.

Image by Roger Steene (courtesy of BBC)

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