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Created by Lauren Kosseff

Benjamin Beck(1980) offers a fascinating story about the ingenuity of a crow which lived in his laboratory.  The crow was fed dried mash, which needs to be moistened before the crow can eat it.  However, the keepers occasionally forgot to do so.  The crow found a solution to his keepers' absent-mindedness; he used a cup to get water to moisten the mash himself!  The cup had been given to the crow as a toy but he used it to collect water from a trough on the other side of the room.

The anecdote about the crow offers an example of tool use in animals.  The study of tool use in animals illuminates similarities between humans and animals in terms of problem solving skills, dexterity, and intelligence.  Does the ability of animals to use tools signify an intelligence level close to that of humans?   Many people define intelligence as the ability to adapt to your environment, or make your environment serve your purposes.  Is animal tool use symbolic of that definition of intelligence?  Tool use in primates is particularly interesting because it sheds light on the abilities and lifestyles of early humans. 

Two characteristics of an environment are necessary to support the evolution of tool behaviors in animals.  First of all, the use of tools must be advantageous to the animal.  The examples which follow illustrate the advantages of tool use for the Egyptian vultures, chimpanzees, hooded monkeys, woodpecker finches, and green herons.  Secondly, animal tool use is constrained by the availability of objects in the environment which make feasible tools.  Without access to stones, poles, pieces of wood, and cactus spines, these animals would not have been able to acquire the uses of tools which they have.

Tool use is actually more prevalent in captive birds and mammals than in their wild counterparts.  Of course, observation of tool use is much easier with captive animals.  However, the more frequent use of tools in captive environments is supported even when an adjustment is made for this bias.   The reason for higher rates of tool use in captive environments relates to environmental opportunity.  Captive animals are relieved of many chores which they have in the wild because they are provided with adequate food and water, security from predators, and protection from environmental extremes such as weather.  Moreover, captive animals are often provided with many manipulative objects.

Click below to see information about tool use in specific animals:

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