Caution: Ingenious animals at work

We used to think that humans were the only tool-users. But now chimps, crows - even dolphins - have been spotted using them.

How often do you use tools? Every day? If you're thinking of a hammer or saw, you might say you don't use tools very often. But a tool can be any object you use to get something done. A fork is a tool. So is a pencil. We use tools all the time. People used to think this was one way we humans were different from animals, because animals don't use tools. Then scientists began to discover animals using tools, sometimes in very clever ways.

Because animals in captivity were easier to watch than those in the wild, people first observed tool use by zoo animals. They noticed that chimpanzees would pick up a stick and wave or throw it at another chimp to frighten or startle it. Sometimes they used sticks to play games such as tug of war. Scientists decided to study chimps' ability to use tools.

In the 1920s, German-American psychologist Wolfgang Kohler worked with four chimps named Chica, Grande, Konsul, and Sultan. He would place a bunch of bananas out of reach and leave items that could be used for tools, such as sticks and wooden boxes. Soon the chimps figured out how to use the sticks to pull the bananas into their cage, or stack up boxes to reach the bananas. As Dr. Kohler and other scientists observed animals learning to use tools, they wondered if this was something only done in captivity.

Jane Goodall, considered the world's expert on chimpanzees, discovered that the animals also use tools in the wild. She watched chimps at Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania, Africa. Dr. Goodall saw them pick blades of grass and carefully trim them, then stick them into a termite mound for a moment. Then they pulled out the blades covered with termites, one of their popular dinners. They were using the blades as tools to "fish" for their food.

Using tools when no one's around

Later observers learned that chimpanzees also clean themselves with wads of leaves, or use them like a sponge to soak up water for drinking. Recently scientists in the Republic of Congo placed cameras in an area frequented by chimpanzees, to observe them when no humans were around.

The cameras recorded the chimps using a tool kit, a combination of tools, to get their termite dinners out of underground nests. The chimps use their feet to poke a large stick into the earth, as you might push a shovel into the ground to dig a hole. Then they use a different stick as a fishing probe to bring out the termites. Sometimes they even use their teeth to fray the end of the probe, like a brush, to collect more insects.

The chimps seem to know that different types of sticks work best for different purposes. They use a specific plant for each tool. They gather the sticks from one area and carry them to places where termites are found.

Chimps aren't the only animals to use tools. Orangutans have been seen braiding vines together to make stronger rope. Capuchin monkeys use rocks to smash open palm nuts.

Even birds have uses for tools. Woodpecker finches and green jays also use a probe (a cactus spine or twig) to pull grubs and insects from holes in trees.

Another bird, the Egyptian vulture, likes to dine on ostrich eggs. The eggs are too hard to break open by pecking them with their beaks. Goodall also observed these birds in Tanzania. She found that the vultures throw rocks at the eggs to break them open.

Green herons have been seen to use bait when they go fishing. The heron drops a small object onto the surface of the water. Sometimes this brings fish to the surface. The fish think the object is food. Then the heron snatches the fish for its dinner.

Not all green herons do this. Scientists are still trying to understand how the birds learn this and why only some birds do it.

Sea creatures aren't known to use tools very often, but that may be because we haven't observed them as much. Or they may not need to use tools to find food or meet their needs. In Shark Bay, Australia, however, dolphins have been seen carrying sponges on their beaks. It is thought that they use sponges to protect their beaks while looking for food on the ocean floor.

Some scientists study how animals use tools to try to understand how animals think and how their thinking processes differ from those of humans. How well can animals reason out a problem and decide to use a tool to solve it?

Watch mom to see how it's done

Some tool use seems to be socially transmitted. Younger animals learn to use tools by watching adults. Young chimpanzees in the Republic of Congo, for example, were observed watching their mothers fish termites out of mounds using sticks. Then the youngsters would try it themselves.

Sea otters eat while floating on their backs. They often dive underwater to find a shellfish, then come up to the surface to eat it. They place a rock on their stomach and crack the shellfish against the rock to open it. Young otters watch their mothers doing this and learn to imitate them.

At other times animals have been known to discover how to use a tool all by themselves. A crow once lived in the laboratory of psychologist Benjamin Beck, who studies animal behavior. The crow's food needed to be moistened before he could eat it. When someone forgot to provide water to moisten the food, the crow took matters into his own hands (or beak). He had a cup that he'd been given as a toy. He used the cup to carry water from a trough on the other side of the room for his food.

Researchers study examples like this to try to better understand how animals figure out how to use tools. Do they use trial and error? In other words, do they just move things around until they stumble onto something that works? Or do they reason about what might solve the problem? It's hard to know what's going on in an animal's mind. Scientists still aren't certain how well animals can think through problems and find or fashion tools to solve them. It will take more observation and research before we understand animals that use tools.

For pictures and descriptions of varioud animals using tools go to www.nationalgeographic.com/ngkids/0307/. Video clips of chimps using toolkits are at: news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/10/1006_041006_chimps.html.

The Harry Houdini of the primate world

Orangutans are known to be clever tool-users. One in particular became especially well-known for it. An orangutan named Fu Manchu lived at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb. In 1968, he found a way to escape. "It was a game to him," said zoo director Lee Simmons. Workers would come to the zoo in the morning and find Fu and his family in the trees outside their compound. The keepers would have to round them up and coax them back into their enclosure.

At first, head keeper Jerry Stones thought someone must have left the door to the compound unlocked. But no one admitted they might have done it.

When it happened again, Mr. Stones figured he was going to have to fire some careless worker. But after the third escape, he started to watch the orangutans carefully. Finally, he caught Fu Manchu in the act. The primate was slipping down to a door that connected the compound with the furnace room. Then, incredibly, he was using a piece of wire to slip under the latch and open the door.

To keep Fu from masterminding any more escapes, zookeepers were careful to remove from the cage any wire or other objects that might be used to unlatch the door.

But Fu wasn't about to give up. One day, Stones noticed that Fu had something in his mouth. Suspicious, Stones checked. Sure enough, Fu had bent a piece of wire so that he could hide it around his gums. He had been storing his latest lock pick in his mouth.

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