Bob’s not the only builder
A long time ago (2.6 million years ago to be exact), an animal hit a rock against another rock, hoping to impress its mates with a glorious feat of engineering. That animal was to one day evolve into what is known scientifically as Homo sapiens, or non-scientifically as US. That rock was the first human tool in existence, and (both literally and figuratively) shaped our destiny as a species. We now rely on tools to achieve almost everything in our day-to-day lives. Reading this on a computer? That’s some exemplary tool-use right there. Eating your dinner? Unless you’re having pizza or chicken wings, you’re probably using a tool for that. Dog leash? Tool. Hair-dryer? Tool. Seinfeld? Kind of a tool. Not to make a big deal about it, but tools are kind of our thing.
But guess what. We’re far from the only species on the planet that uses tools. Something about them being convenient and making lives easier? Many primates use a variety of tools for a wide range of activities. Chimpanzees are well-known to use tools, and are our closest link to the animal kingdom. But there are many others. Orangutans, widely perceived as highly intelligent even amongst other primates, are known to use tools for a myriad of reasons. These include the use of leaves to wipe their faces, branches as spears for fishing, and among some less questionable uses, sticks to clean the pipes. But let’s keep this blog family friendly and move straight onto gorillas, the veritable oafs of the primate world, who mainly use their raw strength to overcome problems that would require tool-use in their cousins. Even so, gorillas still use sticks in both the navigation through and testing of water bodies.
Wait a second, I hear you say, you’re still limiting tools to the group of animals most like us! Are there any kooky critters that have some ingenious uses for their home-made marvels? The answer to that is: of course there are! Cephalopods, known more commonly as octopuses, have a habit of sneaking off with coconut shells to use as shelter and protection, in areas where cover is otherwise sparse. The sea otter, Enhydra lutis, employs rocks for the most common of purposes: smashing the shells of invertebrates like crabs and sea-urchins to get into the food inside. What’s most interesting about this (and pretty cute) is that otters often have a favourite rock, which they store in pockets of skin under their arms. Birds are prolific tool beneficiaries; use in crows and other corvids has been widely studied. New Zealand’s alpine parrot, the Kea (Nestor notabilis), has been recorded using sticks to trigger stoat traps, for no other apparent reason than to be rewarded with the loud bang the traps make as they close. But what does it take to use tools?
Well, the main factor is the use of a decent brain. Early tool use in humans was associated with several regions of the brain. To acquire the necessary sensory information for tool use, the middle and superior temporal cortices are employed. The ventral precentral gyrus is involved in the implementation of the actions required for tool-use from memory banks, while the supplementary motor area is used for planning the action out. But in animals, it may be a lot simpler. Two features of the brain acknowledged to be useful are a large cerebellum and a heavily folded cerebral cortex. Both of these features are present in a large majority of bird species, and their tool-using prowess gives weight to this theory.
Tool use is just one of the many reasons the animal kingdom is so fascinating (in my opinion more so than all the human kingdoms). But really the point of this blog was to provoke thought. Why use an expensive fishing rod when an orangutan can catch fish with a sharp stick? Why build a house out of bricks and mortar when you could make one from coconuts instead? Why? Because humans have mastered tools, and in time so will other animals. Just keep an eye on that octopus. He’s too crafty for his own good.