13 Remarkable Animals That Use Tools

Until 1963, most scientists believed that tool use was a uniquely human trait.

a chimpanzee inserting a stick into a clear box containing tennis balls

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There are endless instances of tool use among primates. Chimpanzees fashion twigs for termite fishing, use stone and wooden tools to crack open nuts, and sharpen spears out of sticks to hunt. Meanwhile, gorillas use walking poles to measure water depth, orangutans can pick a lock with a paperclip, and capuchins make stone knives by banging flint against the floor until the pieces are sharp. Primate tool use has also been studied by scientists for centuries. Charles Darwin discussed tool use among baboons in his 1871 book "The Descent of Man," and Jane Goodall famously studied chimpanzees and their use of tools in the 1960s.

However, tool use is not limited to primates. From tiny insects to massive mammals, creatures across the animal kingdom create and use tools to hunt, build, and more.

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Close-Up Of Common Raven Carrying Stick In Mouth

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Aside from primates, crows show the most ingenuity in the animal kingdom. Their many clever tricks include manipulating sticks and twigs to extract insects from logs, dropping walnuts in front of moving cars to crack them, and using scrap paper as a rake or sponge.

A 2018 study even revealed that crows can build compound tools, as crows observed by the researchers were able to attach small objects together to create a stick long enough to reach a food source. Interestingly, even young crows exhibit this behavior without having seen adults do it, which suggests it's part of their natural behavior.

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an elephant holding a paintbrush with its nose, painting a picture of an elephant

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Elephants have a remarkable ability to use tools, utilizing their dextrous trunk like an arm. They use branches to scratch parts of their body that their tail and trunk cannot reach, use leaves to swat flies, and chew on bark to make it spongy enough to absorb scarce drinking water. But perhaps the most stunning accomplishment of elephants is their artistic ability. Some zookeepers have given their elephants paintbrushes, and the sensitive beasts have shown quite a propensity for painting.

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Male Satin Bowerbird Rearranging His Bower, Lamington, Queensland, Australia
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Most birds share one remarkable tool-related trait in common: the ability to build a nest. Bowerbirds, usually found in Australia or New Guinea, take it one step further. They do it for romance. To lure a mate, the male builds a complicated bower, an obsessively constructed structure that often utilizes items as diverse as bottle caps, beads, broken glass or whatever else he can find that looks pretty and attracts attention. Sometimes they will paint the walls of the nest with vegetable juices, create a "display" court tiled with rocks, or install a sapling as a "maypole," or central supporting post.

This is not the nest; the female builds that later for laying her eggs, while the male guards and touches up his bower to get ready for the next female.

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two dolphins, one of which is holding a sponge in its mouth

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The intelligence of dolphins is well-known, but since they have flippers instead of hands, many experts didn't think they used tools. At least not until 1984, when bottlenose dolphins in Australia were seen tearing off pieces of sponge and wrapping them around their noses, apparently to prevent abrasions while they hunted on the sea floor. This behavior is believed to be handed down matrilineally, from mothers to daughters.

Dolphins have also figured out how to trap fish inside conch shells and then swim to the surface, pouring the shell's contents into their open mouth.

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Egyptian Vultures

Egyptian Vulture breaking egg with a stone
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Birds are among the most prolific tool users, and one of the most startling examples is the Egyptian vulture. One of the vulture's favorite foods is an ostrich egg, but the giant eggshell can be difficult to break. To compensate, the vulture manipulates rocks with its beak and pounds the rocks into the shell until it cracks. They have also been observed using sticks to roll up wool, which is then used as a lining in their nests.

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Veined octopus (Octopus marginatus) hiding in shell, underwater view
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The octopus has been heralded as the most intelligent invertebrate on the planet, and its use of tools is often improvised. Some octopuses have been observed carrying two halves of a shell. When threatened by predators, they close the shells over themselves to hide, building a sort of protective armor. Furthermore, the blanket octopus has been known to tear off tentacles from jellyfish and wield them as weapons when attacked.

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Woodpecker Finches

woodpecker finch: camarhynchus pallidus using twig as tool galapagos
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There are several species of finch that use tools, but the most famous might be the Galapagos woodpecker finch. Since its beak can't always squeeze into the small holes where insects live, the bird compensates by finding a twig or cactus spine of the perfect size and using it as a tool to pry out its meal. This characteristic has even earned it the nicknames "tooling-using finch" and "carpenter finch." Scientists have found that this behavior is not learned socially, but is innate.

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Leaf-Cutter Ants Carry Leaves
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Insects also use tools, especially social insects such as ants. Leafcutter ants have even created an advanced agricultural society in which they cultivate fungus to use as a food source for their larvae. The ants cut pieces from leaves and other vegetation such as grasses, which are then brought to the fungus to be used as a nutritional substrate. The ants also carry waste away from their fungal gardens and deposit it in a refuse dump. Sometimes they use tools to transport liquid to their nests and will test new materials to gauge their effectiveness at soaking up liquid.

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Striated Herons

Striated heron emerging from the water with a fish

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Striated herons use their smarts to be better fishermen. Rather than wading through water waiting for their prey to surface, these herons use fishing lures to coax fish to within striking distance. This practice is known as bait-fishing, and it is a fascinating and rare example of birds using tools. Some herons have even been seen sprinkling food like bread crumbs over the water to entice fish.

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Sea Otters

Sea Otter breaking open a clam
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Even the strong jaws of the sea otter aren't always enough to pry open a tasty clam or oyster. That's when the charismatic marine mammal gets wise. An otter regularly carries a stone around on its belly and uses it to pound open its mollusk meal. Sometimes it uses a stationary rock on the shoreline like an anvil to open mussels.

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Decorator Crabs

Camposcia retusa (spider decorator crab)
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Even crabs get in on the tool-using act. Their claws are good for manipulating objects, and decorator crabs got their name for a reason. They often "decorate" themselves by covering their bodies with sedentary animals and plants like sea anemones and seaweed. This decoration is usually for the purpose of camouflage, but some crabs decorate themselves with noxious organisms such as stinging anemones to scare off predators.

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a beaver standing in the water near its dam
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One of the most famous tool users is the beaver, despite the fact that tool use among rodents is extremely rare. These animals construct dams to protect themselves from predators and to provide easy access to food and gentle swimming, with some dams growing to as long as 2,790 feet. Beavers build dams by cutting down trees and packing them with mud and stones.

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Palm cockatoo holding a nut
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Parrots may be the most intelligent birds in the world, and examples of their use of tools are numerous. Some pet owners may discover this firsthand when a trickster bird uses a piece of metal or plastic to lift open its cage lock. Palm cockatoos have also been known to pad their beaks with leaves to twist open nuts, like a human would use a towel to improve traction when opening a soda bottle. African Greys and Cockatoos have been known to use objects to scratch the backs of their heads.