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Animal Tool Use

Tool users – a club of selective membership

Humans are especially good at solving problems using two tricks: language (to induce others to act as they want) and tools (to achieve what they cannot do with hands alone). The manufacture and use of tools was once believed to be uniquely human, but we now know that we share this ability with some animal species, although it seems rare. The complexity of tool use (and language) is often seen as an indication of a species’ general intelligence.

While humans are in front, the next position regarding tool use is shared by two very different creatures: chimpanzees and New Caledonian Crows. The chimpanzees’ distinction is to be expected, because only 6 million years (or 250,000 generations) separate them from humans, but the fact that a bird shares the second place is surprising – the most recent common ancestor of birds and human lived about 310 million years ago (170 million generations).

chimpanzee nut cracking

Like chimpanzees, but unlike any other species, New Caledonian crows use tools frequently, use many different tool types, manufacture their own tools, select tools according to each task, and can create a new design when they need it (see Crow natural history and Cognition).

Most researchers agree that language and tool use were the main factors driving our own rapid evolution and cognitive advancement. The discovery that some non-human animals, including birds, are capable tool users has important implications for our understanding of a range of topics, including animal intelligence, the emergence of culture, and the supposed superiority of our own species.