Animal Tool Use

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Every day, humans use tools to accomplish a task: forks for eating, pencils for writing, sponges for cleaning. Think humans are the only tool-users on the planet? Think again.

In the 1859 original publication of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin reported that elephants break off tree branches to brush away flies. And sophisticated tool-using animal behavior has been observed many times since the days of Darwin.

In the Nat Geo WILD show Mystery Gorillas, researchers witnessed a western lowland gorilla breaking off a tree branch and using it as a walking stick as she waded through a swamp  – the first ever documentation of a gorilla making and using a tool in the wild.

These primates are the closest relative to humans. In 1960, Jane Goodall reported that wild chimpanzees foraged for ants and termites by using sticks and stems as tools. Chimpanzees have also used stones to crack open nuts and leaves to clean their bodies.

These large rodents construct dams alongside water sources as a tool for protection and survival. Beavers cut down trees, gnaw on twigs, gather mud and collect stones to create massive, protective structures called lodges.

If elephants are unable to rub an itch with their long trunk, she might pick up a stick and use it as a makeshift back scratcher. These highly intelligent mammals have also been known to throw things at people (with accuracy!), paint with brushes, and plug watering holes with chewed-up bark to preserve their water source in the hot desert.

Burrowing owls are intelligent birds of prey. They will consciously collect animal dung and use it as a tool to attract their favorite meal: beetles. These owls spread the dung bait in and around their hideaways and wait for their prey to appear.

New Caledonian Crow
This clever bird has been observed in captivity fashioning a hook from a piece of straight wire. Then, the untrained, problem-solving crow used the hook to retrieve a piece of food from inside a container. 

Egyptian Vulture
The Egyptian vulture is a large bird that will pick up a rock and drop it on an ostrich egg to break it open and eat the insides. This incredible tool-using behavior was caught on video and has been viewed over 23,000 times.

Bottlenose Dolphins
The first documented marine mammal to use tools, the bottlenose dolphin will break off a piece of aquatic sponge and hold them over his nose while probing the seafloor. It is believed that these sponges help protect the dolphins’ noses from debris (and possible encounters with stinging stonefish). Additionally, these mammals reportedly teach their young these same tool-using behaviors.

Observing wild animals in their natural environments is the only way to truly better understand the complexity and intelligence of the planet’s remarkable species.

Check out Mystery Gorillas to witness first-hand a gorilla using tools in the wild.