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Animals that Use Tools

Many think of "tool use" as an exclusively human trait. In fact, creating and using tools is a trait that has evolved in a variety of species. Below are five example of animals that use tools.

1. Octopus


Photo of octopus © Nick Hobgood under CC by SA license

Octopi are the most intelligent invertebrates known to science and are famous for escaping from their tanks at aquariums. They are playful creatures and each individual has their own personality. They have been observed using tools in a variety of ways.

One tool method that has been observed in octopi is using shells as shields. They will find two halves of a shell and when threatened, will close their bodies inside the shell.

Blanket octopi are immune to the poisonous Portuguese man o’ war (a type of jellyfish). They have been observed ripping the tentacles off the jellyfish and keeping them to use as weapons.

2. Bottlenose Dolphin


Bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay have been observed using marine sponges to help them forage for food on the sandy ocean floor. A dolphin will stick a sponge on the end of its beak, presumably to serve as a protection glove against stinging stonefish hiding in the sand. The sponge also acts as a tool to scare fish out of the seabed. They will swim out into the open and the dolphin with snatch them up. This odd hunting technique is exclusive to female dolphins. It appears to have originated in a single female and has been passed down culturally from mother to daughter. Why is this behavior only found in females? Male dolphins do not forage nearly as often as female dolphins. Females need to forage for food found on the sea bottom in order to satisfy the nutritional demands for nursing calves.

Bottlenose dolphins have also been known to work cooperatively with fishermen. Since 1847 in Laguna, Brazil, dolphins have been known to herd schools of fish toward the beach. The fisherman will then throw their nets and catch the fish. The dolphins will devour any of the fish that escape the nets.

3. New Caledonian Crow


New Caledonian crows are the most intelligent species of crow, native to New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands. They are adept strategists who use use tools on a constant basis. They manufacture several different types of tools, develop new designs when needed, and are selective about which tool they use according to their circumstances. They even save tools for future use. They are known to make hooks from barbed vines and probes from twigs and and the barbed edges of pandanus leaves. They primarily use these tools to fish out insects and grubs out of dead wood.

New Caledonian Crows have also been observed making tool from material it does not encounter naturally in the wild—the only non-human species known to do so.

New Caledonian Crows have shown signs of culture. Different New Caledonian crow populations have been observed making tools from slightly different designs. The geographic origin of a tool can be identified due to these distinctions. This suggests that the manufacturing process is a learned trait, passed down through generations.

4. Elephants


Elephants are among the world’s most intellgent animals, possessing the largest brain of all terrestrial animal species. They have the greatest volume of cerebral cortex available for cognitive processing of any land animal, exceeding that of even primates.

Elephants have been observed digging holes to drink water, and then using bark and sand to cover the water hole to prevent it from evaporating. They are also known to drop large rocks onto electric fences to destroy the fence. They use stones, sticks and bones to throw as weapons. Elephants have been observed using branches as backscratchers or to remove pests such as ticks from parts of their body that their trunk can’t reach. They have also been observed using palms and similar pieces of vegetation as fly swatters.

5. Great Apes: Gorilla, Orangutans, and Chimps


All great apes are known to use tools.

Gorillas are known to use sticks when crossing dark, swampy areas to judge the depth of the water. Gorillas have also been seen using tree trunks to create a bridge over deep swamps.

Orangutans have been observed using sticks to pry open pulpy fruits that are covered in painful thorns. They have also been seen using leaves as padding for their hands to protect them from the thorns while they are feeding.

Chimps are famous for their tool-making skills and cultural transmission abilities. They have the ability to premeditate the use of tools. They regularly use stones as hammers to crack open nuts. They use long stalks of grass or reeds to lure termites out of termite mounds. More recently, chimps have been observed shaping sticks into spears to hunt bush babies.