Proud of his Tools

But the human being is not the only one who uses tools

Us humans take such enormous pride in the fact that we can use tools – we even called one of our ancestors Homo habilis, the “tool manipulator”. Yet, this ability is by no means restricted to humans. A threatened individual of the crab Mellia tesselata, for instance, may grab a sea-anemone with its pincers and use it to fend off an attack by a predator; weaver ant adults, themselves lacking the capacity to spin silk or produce glue, hold one of their own spin-gland possessing larvae between their mandibles and use them to stick together leaves; male dancing and scorpion flies giftwrap a morsel of food in silk, hand it over to the female of their choice and copulate with her while she is occupied unwrapping the present. Amongst the birds the most famous example is that of one of Galapagos finches that uses a long cactus spine to pry free and retrieve from crevices some delicious insect larvae, but they are not the only tool users amongst birds. Another nice example is the tailor-bird of India, which gathers together silk of a spider’s web to stabilize and anchor its nest. Even arsonists can be found amongst our feathered friends. The Australian kitehawk has been seen to pick up a smouldering stick in its claws and dropping it over an unburnt patch of bush to drive out lizards and other prey in the ensuing fire.

Stones as tools are very popular tools and African vultures have been filmed to use them to crack open the hard-shelled eggs of ostriches; sea-otters, too, manipulate stones to break “sea-eggs” (actually sea-urchins), whose contents they find irresistible and chimpanzees throw stones at leopards and other animals that they perceive as menacing. The tiny ant-lion, sitting concealed at the bottom of its funnel-like home in the sand, cunningly flicks sand grains at ants struggling to escape from the sandy pit. The bombardment makes the ants lose their footing and end up between the mandibles of the ant-eating insect.

The animal world is really full of tool users and even such violent activities as shooting down a plane or keeping demonstrators at bay with a water cannon have their parallels, though on a much smaller scale, amongst animals. The archer fish aims at insects and spits them down from distances of up to one metre above water and the marine pistol shrimp shoots a jet of water with such force that it can stun smaller predators and is actually audible.

Some birds are so smart that they have learned to use humans as tools for their own ends. My student and I have observed on our campus that crows dropped acorns from the air onto the road and waited for cars driven over them to split them open and crush them to pieces. The crows would then flock together to quickly ingest what the cars had made available to them. The honey-guide birds of Africa (Indicator indicator), even featured on a Kenyan stamp I have in my collection, may be the “smartest” of them all. Not only do they, like cuckoos, use other bird species to brood their eggs, they search for trees with honeybee nests in them, but unable to break the nests open themselves with their beaks, they announce their finds vocally and through excited hops and displays. Humans, and possibly honey-loving badgers too, have learned to understand the bird’s intention and rush to open the honey bees’ nests. They then take as much as they want, but for the wax and bee eating honey guide birds, which have found the nest, there will then always be sufficient goodies left to use their trick again at another time when they are craving for a bee meal.

relativity time biology age

Time flies fast!

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2017.
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