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Animal Tool Use

When I was at university, one of our Zoology professors told us that a definition of Humans was the tool using animal.  He then proceeded to give examples of tool use by other animals.  Although his lectures were interesting, I got the impression that he was prepared to bend the facts slightly for effect.  He had changed the usual refinition to more easily prove it inaccurate.

Actually, the more common definition of Humans is the tool making animal.  I, and no doubt most of the others, in the class knew this.

Tool Using Birds

Several birds use tools in the wild. These include the Woodpecker Finch,
Camarhynchus pallidus, of the Galapagos Islands.  This little bird will use twigs or cactus spines to get insects or spiders out of crevices.
This behaviour may be instinctive, but the bird will go further than just use the tools.  It will select a suitable one, and if it is not quite right will modify it with its beak.  So this bird is both a tool using and a tool making animal.
Egyptian Vultures, Neophron percnopterus, will use stones to break open Ostrich eggs.  This behaviour appears to be almost completely instinctive, and the bird does not appear to select the best stone for breaking the egg, nor to modify its tool.
Egyptian Vulture Photo By Kousik Nandy
(photographed by Kousik Nandy) [GFDL (,
CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 
(], via Wikimedia Commons
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Some Green Herons, Butorides virescens, will drop an object into the water and attract fish that the bird eats. This appears to be completely learned behaviour. 
Researchers are unsure about how the bird learns, or works out this.
Tool use by sea creatures in the wild is more difficult to observe.  It has been recognised for a long time that Dolphins are very intelligent, so it is not surprising that tool used in this fascinating creature has been observed.

In Shark Bay in Western Australia, a female Dolphin was seen with a marine sponge on its snout.  Further investigation showed that it used the sponge as a fishing aid when foraging for food on the sea bed.
This type of tool was probably invented by one mother Dolphin and taught to her female descendants.  Only one male was seen using the technique.  This might be because the males are more likely to catch their prey in mid water rather than from the sea bed.  So this appears to be learned behaviour that the mother has passed on to her daughters.  It is not clear if the animals modify the sponges, but they must select suitable ones.
A Gorilla testing the water depth with a stick                          A Bonobo using a stick to catch termites
Photo By See Source [CC-BY-2.5 (], via                    Photo taken at San Siego Zoo by User:Mike R on 8 August, 2005.
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Primate Tools Use in the Wild

Humans are Primates, and of course we use an enormous variety of tool.  In fact, just at the moment I am using a computer which is clearly a tool. However, this article is more about the use of tools by other primates, especially Apes.

All the Apes have been observed using tools in the wild.


The Chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes, is probably the ape that uses the most tools in the wild.  They not only use tools, but will also make them.


To get Termites out of a Termite nest, Chimpanzees will use a twig or small branch.  If it has leaves on it, they will remove the leaves.  This is a simple example of tool making.  It has been observed many times in the wild.  I have even seen it myself, but in my case it was it a zoo.

The verb, to ape, actually means to imitate.  Probably the young apes imitate the older ones in the group and learn how to do this.  It has been suggested that young Chimpanzees while playing have a tendency to stick things into holes. 

Having had four children I can easily believe that this is true.  I remember carefully putting special dummy plugs into all the unused power sockets in our house to prevent our babies and toddlers sticking things into the live sockets.  Of course our house has Earth Leakage Detectors giving electronic protection against electrocution, but we do not rely on these.


Chimpanzees will use several stones to crack nuts. One larger stone is used as an anvil while a smaller one is used to hammer the nut to break it.  If the anvil stone is not level, the Chimp will level it with wedges.

Cutting up Food

Apart from cracking nuts, Chimps have been observed to cut up food into more easily managed sizes with stone or wooden choppers


If Chimpanzees are faced with a Leopard they will attack the predator with whatever is available, hurling sticks and stones at it as well as picking up large sticks to use as clubs.  If necessary, they will break off small trees to use as clubs.


Chimps will also use make and use weapons including primitive spears.  These are made of wood and the end is sharpened with the teeth.  These spears are far simpler than the sophisticated weapons made by some groups of Humans.


Tool use by the Bonobo, Pan paniscus, is similar to that by the Chimpanzee.  They have not been observed to make spears, but their different diet and way of life may mean that they have less need for weapons.

Other Primates

Gorillas, Orangutans, Gibbons and some Monkeys have been observed to use tools in the wild although none of them to the extent of the Chimps and Bonobos.