Dirty Toenails Inspire Monkey to Craft Its First Tool

monkey cleans toenails photo
Screenshot from BBC

It turns out that monkeys and humans have a bit more in common than most people might think -- and both can agree that dirt under the nails is not a good look. Researchers from the UK's Durham University recently recorded some rather fascinating behavior never before observed in a mandrill monkey. During a filmed study of the primate, one individual was seen crafting a simple tool to serve a simple yet relatable task: the cleaning of its toenails.

With this oddly revolutionary discovery, mandrills become only the fifth Old World primate ever presenting an ability to create tools, albeit a rather crude one. Nevertheless, researchers are excited by the increasing evidence suggesting that people don't have a monopoly on handiness.

"It is an ability that, up until a few years ago, was thought to be unique to humans," said lead researcher Dr. Riccardo Pansini, to BBC Nature. "The gap between monkeys and great apes is not as large as we thought it was in terms of tool use and modification."

From the BBC:

In the footage that Dr Pansini captured, a large male mandrill strips down a twig, apparently to make it narrower. The animal then uses the modified stick to scrape dirt from underneath its toenails.

Though the scientist was excited to witness this deliberate tool modification, he said it was not entirely surprising.


He thinks the captive setting may have helped bring out this behaviour.

"Animals have more time in captivity to carry out tasks that are not focused on looking for food or mating," he said. "So in zoos, you can occasionally pick up behaviours that are a little bit strange.

Although it seems pretty clear from the footage that the mandrill was intending to use the stick for pedicure purposes, other have questioned whether this constitutes 'tool-using' as it is commonly understood.

"For me, the behaviour is closer to what we already know from other species, using a stick for self-cleaning purposes, than the tool modification of say chimpanzees - which rake their stick tools through their teeth to produce a brush for gathering termites," primatologist Amanda Seed tells the the BBC. "But these definitions are always tricky. You could say that as soon as an animal pulls a branch from a tree, they're modifying that branch."

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