Category: Culture & Tool Use

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Culture is not an exclusively human phenomenon. Other animal societies have also evolved culture - learned behaviour is passed down from one generation to the next (vertical transmission) as well as among peers (horizontal transmission). Here, learning that carries a survival value can occur through teaching or, more commonly, through imitation. The latter is particularly important in social play, a vital part of learning in the most intelligent animals, which is strikingly similar between young mammals (notably primates) and birds (crows, hornbills and parrots).

Primate cultures are particularly advanced, but it has been argued that cetacean cultures are more similar to human cultures than those of most terrestrial mammals. In several species of whale, there is evidence for a vertical, mother-line transmission of culture, where older females are valuable sources of information. This is also true of elephants, which are furthermore extremely unusual in their reaction to the death of their compatriots, which includes attempts at resuscitation and grieving.

Ants demonstrate complex social organisation that in some ways is reminiscent of some of the darker aspects of human culture, such as forming armies (in army ants), warfare and slavery, which has evolved several times independently in different groups of ants.

Tool use is often considered in the context of human evolution, but a number of other animals have independently evolved the capacity to employ tools to modify their environment or to obtain food. According to Beck's classic definition of 1980, a tool is an object that is neither part of the animal itself nor attached to the environment and must be manipulated to obtain a benefit. This definition has attracted some criticism as it arbitrarily excludes other construction behaviour such as nest building in birds and chimpanzees or web construction by spiders, which can be much more complicated than simple forms of tool use.

Manufacturing and using tools is often thought to indicate complex cognitive abilities, restricting its occurrence to only the most intelligent of animals. However, a broad spectrum in both tool complexity and the cognitive capacities of the animals that use them has been observed, from the simplest to the extraordinarily sophisticated. In addition, anatomical adaptations, such as the highly specialised beaks of birds, might often be superior to tools, rendering them advantageous only under few circumstances.

The most spectacular and advanced examples of tool use have been documented in primates and corvids (e.g. crows and rooks). Chimpanzees and bonobos use tools made from sticks and stones for various purposes, from hunting to basic dental care. Independently, some New World monkeys (in particular capuchins and golden lion tamarins) have also acquired tool use. The tool-making abilities of the highly intelligent New Caledonian crows significantly exceed those of non-human primates. They are known to construct both hooks and probes from twigs and leaves in a highly standardised way, using them to extract insects from bark and other recesses in trees.

Further examples of tool use among birds include Galapagos woodpecker finches, which catch prey with the help of cactus spines or little twigs, and Egyptian vultures, which use stones to crack open ostrich eggs. This method is reminiscent of the well-known sea otters that open hard-shelled mussels by pounding them against a rock placed on their chest. Among other mammalian tool users, elephants are famous for their accuracy in throwing projectiles and additionally use sticks for a number of purposes (e.g. as flywhisks). Female bottlenose dolphins put protective sponge "gloves" on their snouts when foraging on rough areas of the sea floor, a behaviour that is transmitted culturally from mother to daughter. Simple tool use among invertebrates is well known, for example in spiders, which construct and carry modified web baskets or other structures to trap prey. Among the insects, female parasitoid wasps select stones to stamp down soil into the entrance of their burrows, where insect larvae are stored as food for their offspring.

The re-arrangement of inanimate objects for a specific function could be considered the simplest form of tool use. Examples include burrowing owls, which place pieces of collected dung to attract insect prey, while octopuses form walls out of stones, shells and even bits of broken bottle to constrict the aperture of their den.

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Topic Title Teaser text Availablity
Culture and tradition in animals n/a Not Available
Intelligence and cognition in birds

House sparrows are known to gain access to shopping malls by flying in front of sensors that operate sliding doors, whilst herons have been shown to be adept fishers using baits and lures.

Tool use in wasps

Female parasitoid wasps select stones to stamp down soil into the entrance of their burrows...

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Tool use in birds

What animals can drop stones into a water-filled tube to bring floating food within reach or bend wire to form a hook? Obviously chimpanzees? No, New Caledonian crows have evolved sophisticated tool use too.

Dolphin communication, cognition and sociality

Dolphins are one of the most intriguing sources of evolutionary convergence, having cognitive abilities that seem to find many parallels in the great apes, and rather remarkably even extend to tool use.

Slavery n/a Not Available
Ecology and cosmetics in vultures

Vultures are not only charistmatic birds in the popular imagination, but are strikingly convergent, especially regarding feeding types...

Ants: insights into convergence

Trap-jaws, silk and agriculture – just a few examples of convergence in the arguably most successful group of insects, the ants…

Tool use in elephants

Elephants are well known for their accuracy in throwing objects, and in addition use sticks for a number of purposes. Also of considerable interest is their use of fly-whisks to keep blood-sucking flies at bay.

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Elephant response to death

Elephants are extremely unusual in their reaction to the dying and death of their compatriots, which includes attempts at resuscitation and grieving.

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Elephants: senses, intelligence and social structure

There is evidence that elephants are sensitive to seismic communication, with the large pads of the feet and the trunk tip capable of picking up vibrations transmitted through the ground.

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Play in birds, mammals and octopus

Social play is the hall-mark of the most intelligent of this planet’s species, and there is a particularly striking convergence between birds and mammals.

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Simple tool use in owls and cephalopods

Burrowing owls place pieces of collected dung. These attract insects such as beetles that are then eaten by the owls.