Animals that learned to use the tools: what do we know about them?

Are there any animals that have learned to use tools? This phenomenon has been recorded many times, both in nature and in captive environments, with a clear evolutionary goal for the living being: to facilitate the obtaining of food, defense, empolainamiento, entertainment or construction of structures.

Sometimes it is violent for us to recognize that as a species, we are not the only ones with cognitive abilities sophisticated enough to manipulate our environment in complex ways. Human society is characterized by a slightly anthropocentric viewAs we tend to translate all natural behaviors into human terms and goals to better understand the processes around us.

Therefore, the use of tools in animals is a much more controversial topic than one might imagine, as the definition of the word “tool” itself is already a challenge. If you want to learn more about the exciting world of cognitive abilities in living things, keep reading.

    Animals who have learned to use tools: optimizing the environment

    Ethology is the branch of experimental biology and psychology that deals with understand animal behavior, Both under laboratory conditions and in their natural environment. The objectives of this discipline are the study of behavior, instinct, relationships with the environment and patterns that guide behaviors innate or acquired in the world of living beings.

    This branch is therefore subject to permanent control. the interpretation of animal behaviors can be considered to be completely biased by the human being who observes them or the experimental conditions that arise. As much statistical support is necessary to suspect any kind of relationship, their reading will depend considerably on the eyes of the one who interprets them.

    For example, if you take the average spawning of several females of an invertebrate species in different areas and those in zone A produce more eggs than those in zone B, there is little more to discuss. , is not it? There seems to be a correlation between the geographic area and the cohort of offspring produced. After finding this out, we can study why: more food, bigger females, an evolutionary response to more predators, etc.

    But, for example, we put an experiment in which we have two colonies of bees, one that we have disturbed for the last few hours by shaking their hive and another that we do not have. It turns out that undisturbed cologne is more inclined to approach samples with unknown odors, while the one that has been “threatened” is more cautious and only approaches aromatic sources than it is. already know (this experience, although simplified in the end, is real).

    How do we interpret this data? Can it be said that bees are aware of their own state of vigilance and therefore decide not to take risks? Are we facing a purely evolutionary primary mechanism or is there a complex cognitive ability associated with it? Of course, the reading of the results is much more subject to debate than in the previous case.

    What we wanted to emphasize with these two examples is that the extent of animal behavior largely depends on who sees it and the parameters being measured. So surprisingly not all scientists agree on the existence of animals that have learned to use tools. It is not that they deny it completely, but that many cases known to the public would not be strictly applied to this definition.

      What is a tool?

      The first stone we encounter along the way to registering these behaviors is the description of the term tool itself. A fairly widespread definition, proposed in a scientific publication in 1980 and modified since then, is as follows:

      “The external use of an object available in the environment to more effectively modify the shape, position or state of an object, of another organism or of the one who uses it, whereas it is the same that holds and handles the tool during or before use and is responsible for the proper and effective orientation. “

      As we can see from this rudimentary English translation, the very concept of a tool has several meanings to consider. For some researchers, using objects as if they were tools is not a tool in itself., Since humans are the only ones capable of modifying an object enough to be considered a real tool (and at most other primates).

      For example, when a bird uses a piece of bread to attract a fish and then chase it (actual behavior), we cannot define that piece of food as a tool in itself. The general consensus is that this is a “proto-tool”. Like birds, studies have shown that birds that use these proto-tools have less developed brains than those that use real tools.

      When animals use one tool to get another, we are dealing with a “metatool”. On the other hand, when they use one tool to use another later, we are faced with a “use of sequential tools”. As you can see, the world of using objects in nature is much more complex than you might initially think.

      To keep the line of thought and not to complicate things too much, we will continue with the world of birds. As birds that use “real tools” we have New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) as they are able to make sticks like tools from branches and other plant structures.

      It is interesting to know that these tools have a laterality, that is to say that they are modified according to a specific scheme. The branches are actually changed in the shape of a hook to be used later to get beetle larvae in the corners of trees. As can be seen, the basal structure is altered to generate an instrument that facilitates complex activity, so that if it would, without a doubt, fall under the strictest definition of “tool”.

      By presenting this dilemma, examples of tool use in the natural world are called into question. For example, can otters be considered to be using tools if they use stones to break the shells of marine invertebrates they consume? Once this information is presented, the minimum is to stop and think for a few seconds: Do they modify the stones before using them?

      With these questions, we do not want to circumscribe or delineate animal behavior from a skeptical point, because we are only trying to express that everything is not as simple as various informative sources try to show it. Yes, there are multiple examples of the use of real tools, such as orangutans making improvised whistles from tree leaves to warn others of the presence of predators or the making of crude “spears” by chimpanzees to hunt their prey.

      In this particular case, the primate must take a branch, pluck the extensions and leave it once and sharpen the end with its teeth. Again, this is the actual making of a tool, as the object itself has been altered for a complex purpose. Of course, when you look at orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees things change, like complex manipulation of natural resources has been observed on several occasions and little doubt remains as to the recognition of their ability to make tools.


        As we can see, the key to understanding animals that have learned to use tools is, first, to define what is considered a tool or instrument and what is not.

        It is even more complicated in captive environments, as relatively less common behaviors in nature can be recorded., For example, due to continuous contact between animals that have already learned to use tools in advance or a greater amount of energy and free time which in the natural ecosystem is absent.

        Thus, the use of tools in the animal world may (or may not) be more restricted than initially thought. The purpose of the object, the modification of it and the manipulation of the living can be conditioning factors for what is considered (or not) according to personal judgment as an efficient use of tools.

        Bibliographical references:

        • 10 animals that use tools, Retrieved September 3, from
        • Alcock, J. (1972). The evolution of the use of tools to feed animals. Evolution, 464-473.
        • Haslam, M. (2013). “Captive bias” in the use of animal tools and their implications for the evolution of hominid technology. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 368 (1630), 20120421.
        • How to wrap our mind around the consciousness of bees? The best of our knowledge. Retrieved September 3 from
        • Hunt, GR, Gray, RD and Taylor, AH (2013). Why is the use of tools rare in animals? Use of tools in animals: cognition and ecology, 89-118.
        • Mann, J. and Patterson, EM (2013). Use of tools by aquatic animals. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 368 (1630), 20120424.
        • Use of tools in birds, convergent evolution of life. Recognized September 3 at

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