Humans have always been fascinated with what makes us unique. What is it that has allowed us to make such an impression on the Earth like no species before us? There are many things that make humans unique from our ancestors, from bigger brains to bipedalism. We are also known as the “tool using animal”. That is not to say other animals don’t use tools, but humans use tools in an incredible number of activities and to an incredible degree of complexity. Because we arguably use tools better than any other animals, humans often associate tool use with intelligence. There are a variety of animals that use tools, some of which are discussed below.
The most recent addition to the select group of tool using animals is the North American brown bear. The bear was photographed in the Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska in July last year using a rock to rub against its face. The bear was seen sorting through rocks, presumably to find one with the desired qualities. The bear then rubbed the rock on its face and muzzle for around 2 minutes. While it can’t be known for sure, we can assume fairly safely that the bear was using the rock (with barnacles attached) to relieve itchy skin. Bears are commonly seen rubbing against trees or using their claws to scratch, but this is the first recorded case of a bear using an object that can be freely manipulated. These behaviours often go missed because they happen so rarely between only a few individuals.
Elephants are well known for their intelligence and so it is not surprising that these animals use tools. They are incredibly good at problem solving and I myself have seen them use rocks to stand on and reach food otherwise unattainable. In terms of tool use, they are most famous for their use of palm leaves (or similar) to swat away flies. They also use sticks to reach skin irritations. However, there is variability between Elephants and their ability to solve problems. For example, when I worked with Elephants last summer we gave them a coconut each. One tried to bite the coconut open – and failed. Another tried to break the coconut open against a rock – and failed. The final Elephant stood on the coconut – and succeeded. This shows that there is considerable variability between individuals, perhaps due to personality and/or past experiences.
Finally, primates must be acknowledged for their use of tools. Chimpanzees have been observed using sharpened sticks as spears when hunting. They are also well known for using sticks to “fish” for termites and ants from their nests. Gorillas have been observed using sticks to measure the depth of water before they go into it, and have even been seen using a stick to support them as they move through the water. Orangutans have also been seen using sticks to measure water depth, as well as using sticks to break into fruit that has a stinging skin.
Mammals are not the only animals to use tools; many non-mammal animals do as well, including some birds, fish and cephalopods. The huge varieties of problems that are solved using tools, as well as the variety of tools themselves begin to show the cognitive ability required for these activities to evolve. This makes us re-evaluate the cognitive abilities of animals we may not otherwise perceive as “intelligent”. But the re-evaluation only raises more questions, such as how does a new found intelligence change the rights of the animal? If they are capable of complex thought processes then what else are they capable of? At what point does intelligence become so great that we have to redefine animal rights for individuals that show a higher intelligence?