Crows Become Third Species to Create Compound Tools, After Humans and Great Apes

Thursday, 25 October 2018 - 11:45AM
Weird Science
Thursday, 25 October 2018 - 11:45AM
Crows Become Third Species to Create Compound Tools, After Humans and Great Apes
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Composite adapted from Pixabay
Remember when you learned that tool-making was one of the major features that set humans apart from all other animals? Well, that wasn't wholly true—everything from elephants to dolphins to insects use simple tools to survive, as outlined in this excellent National Geographic article. But complex tools, ones made of multiple parts, have only been observed in humans and great apes...until now. A recent study has shown that New Caledonian crows have the ability to make complex tools, and they're good at it, too.

The study involved a puzzle that seems relatively simple to humans, but is pretty complex if you're a crow. A transparent box was set up with some food inside, but the box was ingeniously designed with two holes: one narrow gap that was meant to be used in conjunction with a long stick to push the food around inside the box and one hole that the crows were meant to push the food into, allowing it to fall out of the box. At first, the crows were given long, thin sticks to use to complete the puzzle, but then they were given disparate parts that they had to assemble, including syringe barrels and plungers.

The researchers found that the crows were able to jury-rig tools from these parts in four to six minutes and easily complete the puzzle despite obstacles like their tool falling apart. According to the study: "This multi-compound tool construction required dexterity and perseverance. It involved both combining hollow elements with sticks and the other way around, as well as turning the tool to insert the solid end in another hollow element. Accidental discovery of this recursive process...seems implausible."

Some people may not be impressed by researchers giving the crows two parts of a syringe (which are designed to fit together) but according to ornithologist Auguste von Bayern: "The finding is remarkable because the crows received no assistance or training in making these combinations, they figured it out by themselves."

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