In 1960, English primatologist Jane Goodall made her first trek into what was then the little-known world of wild chimpanzees. Traveling to what’s now Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, 13.5 square miles of jungle habitat consisting of steep slopes and river valleys, Goodall found herself among dozens of these great apes, familiarizing herself with their movements, diet and habitat. Then in October of that year, she made a truly monumental discovery. Chimpanzees, Goodall realized, have the ability to both make and use tools.
Goodall watched as a chimpanzee that she’d named David Greybeard stripped leaves off a twig, and then used that twig to essentially “fish” for termites. Greybeard would lower the twig into a mound and then, once the tiny insects climbed onto it, remove the stick and eat the termites. It was an ingenious form of tool-making — a skill that, up until that moment, was thought to be a strictly human trait.
While tool use and construction aren’t prevalent sills among most of the world’s wildlife, we now know that dozens of animal species make use of extraneous objects to forage for food, scratch itches and solve problems they encounter. This includes elephants, sea otters and at least 32 types of monkeys. Take crows, which are known for their intelligence. These birds use a variety of tools such as sticks, stones and even their own feathers to search for grubs, while bearded capuchin monkeys fashion logs and boulders into “anvils,” or what are basically flattened surfaces they can use to hammer open palm nuts.
Much like humans, animals are influenced by their local environment, and behaviors vary according to region. This means that while dolphins in Pacific waters might use sponges to protect their rostrum (aka snout) while skimming the ocean floor for food, the same Carribean-residing species might not need the extra shielding. Tools are used for a specific purpose, whether to catch prey or cross a swampy river, and depending on the ecosystem, local wildlife often learns how to craft and utilize tools from their elders or peers.
Here are seven animals that use tools, as well as where you can see them in the wild with Natural Habitat Adventures.
Seven Animals That Use Tools
From the gorillas of Uganda to Borneo’s orangutans, these animals are as intelligent and impressive as they come.
As our closest living relatives (we share 99.6% of their DNA), it’s no surprise that chimpanzees know a thing or two about tool-making. In fact, these social primates have been practicing the art of tool-making as far back as 4,300 years. Along with utilizing twigs to “fish” for termites in subterranean nests, they also use stronger sticks to investigate fires and dig for underground beehives. Chimpanzees will sometimes sharpen sticks to hunt for lesser bush babies—small, nocturnal primates with big ears and huge, saucer-like eyes that are known to sleep in hollowed-out trees.
Nat Hab offers safaris in Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania, three East African countries that are home to these endangered creatures, and where you can see them work their magic.
Residing within Africa’s forested mountains and tropical lowland swamps, gorillas are the largest of the ‘great apes’ and like chimpanzees, have a certain penchant for tools. Researchers have observed them using branches both as walking sticks and to test water depth, and turning tree trunks into makeshift bridges to cross perilous wetlands.
Like other apes, gorillas utilize sticks for food foraging, but they also use them to retrieve out-of-reach items.
Nat Hab’s Ultimate Gorilla Safari gets you up close to these amazing animals in both Uganda and Rwanda, and as an added bonus, chimpanzee trekking is on the bill as well!
Dolphins are known to be one of the smartest species on the planet, so it comes as no surprise that tool use is a part of their repertoire, specifically that of the bottlenose dolphins of Shark Bay, Western Australia. Scientists have been studying their use of sponges when hunting fish since the early 1980s. Wearing these sponges over their rostrums like a “beak-like glove,” the dolphins forage for food while protecting their snouts from abrasive sand and/or sharp objects. Sponges also stir up the sand, which can help release sandperch for the dolphins to eat. Along with these “spongers,” Shark Bay is also home to “shellers,” dolphins that utilize empty sea snail shells to trap their prey.
While you may not see spongers or shellers per say, Nat Hab’s new Florida Wildlife Safari still provides the perfect opportunity to catch sight of playful bottlenose dolphins in the wild, along with red-bellied turtles, barracudas and small bonnethead sharks.
Don’t let their literal laid-back poise fool you, sea otters are innovative tool users as well. In fact, they’ll often keep their favorite rock with them, using it to smash open the hard shell of a clam or mussel that pried out of the waters, and they’ll do it all while still floating on their backs. Others will utilize stationary rocks along the shore as “anvils” when they want to protect their bellies.
Sea otters are a frequent sight during Nat Hab’s Ultimate Alaska Wildlife Safari, especially in the fishing and port town of Seward, where they often appear chillaxing among the docks and boats.
Galapagos Woodpecker Finch
One of the 18 or so species of Charles Darwin’s world-famous Darwin finches, and endemic to the Galapagos archipelago, the woodpecker finch stands out for its ability to forage with tools. Unlike most woodpeckers, these passerine birds have short tongues. So instead, they modify sticks and cactus spines to pry grubs from trees. Sometimes they’ll shorten a stick if needed, or try a variety of sticks until finding one that suits their needs.
With several Galapagos itineraries to choose from, including a hiking and kayaking adventure, Nat Hab’s Galapagos Island tours bring participants right into the heart of the islands, where finches, blue-footed boobies and curious sea lions abound.
Perhaps one of the most unique types of tool-making, these red-furred primates have learned to make whistles out of bundles of leaves. They then use the sound to help scare away any predators. Orangutans also use sticks to remove insects from tree holes, poke logs for honey, and when eating Neesia fruits, which are known for their irritant hairs. Once they use the sticks to remove these impediments, they can feast on the fruit’s seeds unencumbered.
An experience like no other, Nat Hab’s The Wilds of Borneo: Orangutans & Beyond takes participants into the remote Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary for the chance to see wild orangutans in their natural habitat. You’ll also visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, which rescues and rehabilitates orphaned baby orangutans.
Elephants often use branches to clean their ears and scratch itches, turn sticks and leaves into fly swatters, and transform tree trunks into weights that will help them scale fences. Botswana’s biologically diverse Chobe National Park is home to more than 50,000 elephants, thought to be the largest concentration of elephants on the planet. It’s also a regular stop on Nat Hab’s Secluded Botswana Safari, making for a great opportunity to observe these remarkable creatures among expert guides and maybe even watch them utilize a tool or two.