Monday, March 21, 2011

Science For Six-Year-Olds: Animals & Tool Use

This is a special Science Decoded post for Mrs. Podolak's first graders at Lincoln-Hubbard Elementary School (yes that would be my Mom's class). My viewers in Lincoln-Hubbard's first grade liked my post Animal Cognition & The Genius Parrot about Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her experiments with Alex the african grey parrot, so I decided to do a post just for them to give them some more information about animal cognition (thinking) by sharing some videos about tool use in animals.

Animal cognition is a fascinating subject because we don't even know everything about how our human brains work, yet we have been able to observe other species demonstrating the ability to think. The following videos show some interesting examples of animals showing us that they do think about their surroundings by using tools to achieve their goals.
Chimpanzees - termites are a source of food for chimpanzees, but they can be extremely difficult to catch because the mounds they build to live in are thick and hard for a chimp to break into. So, chimps have developed a way to infiltrate (sneak into) the mounds. They even modify (change) simple tools (a regular stick) by making them into brushes which capture even more termites.

New Caledonian Crows - birds like to eat nuts, but getting through the hard shell to the tasty part can be very difficult. These crows have devised a special way of cracking the nut, and even found a way to safely collect the edible part of the nut once it has been smashed. (Because this is a BBC video it needs to be watched on YouTube but clicking below will take you to the right link).

Octopus - Researchers have found an example of tool use by the octopus. The organism takes coconut shells and gathers them to use as a shelter which is a startling and significant use of an object external to the animal's self to achieve a goal among invertebrates (animals that don't have a spine, the bones in their back.)

There are many other examples of animals using tools, which shows that the ability to manipulate an object and use it to accomplish a task is by no means a uniquely human trait. If there are any questions, leave them for me in the comment section and I'll be sure to answer them!


  1. This is GREAT! Crows are incredible creatures, felt kind of bad for the little guy trying to make his way to his hard earned keep.

  2. What an interesting post! It always amazes me what "tools" animals are able to create and use. I really like the inset videos too - it makes the post interactive and exciting.

  3. Lincoln-Hubbard first grade thinks this is awesome. We really like the bird crossing the street. How does he know when the light changes? What size is the octopus? The video says that an octopus is really smart. What do octopus do that shows they are really smart?

  4. Hello First Graders! I'm so glad you like the videos that I picked out for you. I hope you will keep watching them and ask me more questions!

    Here are answers to the three questions you asked:
    1. How does the crow know when the light changes?
    Crows have eyes like you do that let them see things around them. The crow looks at the street and sees that when the light changes all the people walk across the street and the cars stop. So the crow thought about it, and realized that if he/she walked across the street when the people did, there wouldn't be any cars and it would be able to get to its nut safely. This shows that the crow is smart and was able to think about the relationship between the people moving and the cars stopping.

    2. What size is the octopus?
    The octopus in the video is a species called amphioctopus marginatus. This is a type of octopus the way a golden retriever is a type of dog. The body of this octopus is around 3 inches with tentacles (arms) that are 6 inches long.

    3. What does the octopus do that shows that it is really smart?
    The video shows that this octopus thinks about things. It sees the coconut shell, and it thinks that because the shell of the coconut is hard it would be good for protection. So it picks up the coconut shells and sits inside them to make a secure little house. The scientists know that because the octopus thinks about the coconut shells and how to use them that the octopus is smart.

  5. More proof that there is alien intelligence right here on Earth. When I studied anthropology, even some textbooks still had tool use listed as one of the defining and unique characteristics of mankind. Then Jane Goodall shone a light on a tribe on chimps that used long blades of grass to fish termites out of their holes and eat them. Octopi are indeed intelligent creatures, they can even pick world cup matches . R.I.P. Paul the Octopus. --Joe