Tag Archives: animal intelligence

Photo copyright Jolyon Troscianko

Regarding Tool Manufacture and New Caledonian Crows

I tend to leave incidental posts, responses to Tumblr posts, and Tumblr replies to the Tumblr incarnation of this blog, trying to keep this official Coyot.es space more for original content and longer posts.  However, this reply was lengthy enough and contained enough original material beyond the initial reply that I thought it would be good to post it here.

This comment is a reply to my correction of the source page for the incorrect NowYouKno “fact” on Tumblr.

I appreciate you pointing out this distinction, though manufacture versus use is sort of a continuum, depending on how we are defining “manufacture”.  It is true that New Caledonian crows are amazing tool makers (something I give lectures about on a nearly annual basis when I talk about animal culture), but more than three species make tools.  Chimpanzees, of course, are tool makers, along with documentation of manufacture in orangutans, mandrills, and Asian elephants.  This is leaving out animals that develop tools or can be taught to develop tools in captivity (ex. bonobos, hyacinth macaws, and a Goffin’s cockatoo, just to name a few).  Also depending on how complex the manufacture, gorillas have been observed breaking off large sticks for stabilization, woodpecker finches have to break off cactus spines to use them (and more recently they are modifying non-native blackberry spines), and bottle-nosed dolphins have to select and break sponges off their substrate to use them.  I still assert that we will probably find a lot more tool use and manufacture in the wild, the more chances we get to observe different species in the wild.  There are certainly many anecdotal and incidental observations of many more species creating and using tools.  However, what you have to keep in mind is that if an animal gets along fine without making and using tools, then there’s not point in them doing so.  Tool manufacture and modification, while really cool to us, isn’t always necessary for other animals.  In chimpanzees and humans, for example, tool use is integral in how we forage and exist in the world, but for other species tool manufacture and use may only be needed on occasion, when a situation calls for it.

In the case of New Caledonian crows, they, like woodpecker finches, live in places that lack woodpeckers.  This is significant because it leaves open the niche that specializes in locating, removing, and eating wood boring insects.  Rather than spending the time to evolve physical adaptations to do this (like woodpeckers have) these two species use tools to the same ends.  Arguably, there is a distinction between woodpecker finches (which are actually most likely in the tanager family, despite the common name) and New Caledonian crows when it comes to the cognitive department.

What happens when nature takes a bird, already a part of a large-brained, cognitively complex genus of birds (Corvus) and puts it on an island that has a goldmine of a niche to fill?  You get the incredible New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides).

(Photo copyright Jolyon Troscianko)

Drs. Russell Gray and Gavin Hunt observed these birds in the wild manufacturing and using tools.  The earliest documented account of tool us in NC crows was by an explorer who reported the use of anvil sites to crack open nuts and snails in 1882.  In 1909 Le Goupils observed NC crows probing a dead log with a stick-tool (reported in 1928) and Orenstein gave a more detailed report on crow tool-use in 1972, but it was Hunt (his first study published in 1996) and Gray who brought attention to these incredible corvids and who still do work on them today.  In 2000, birds were taken from New Caledonia and sent to England to be studied by Alex Kacelnik‘s Behavioral Ecology Research Group (BERG) at the University of Oxford.  Two of these birds were Betty and Abel.  Betty blew the minds of the world when she spontaneously bent a metal wire into a hook to retrieve food after Abel made off with the hooked tool.

Part of the reason the NC crows were brought into captivity by Kacelnik was to see if the tool behaviors were innate or due to complex cognition and problem solving, or even if they were cultural as Gray and Hunt suggested.  The BERG found that young NC crows, with no training or example, had a proclivity for tearing materials and probing holes with other objects.

So if the birds could manufacture and use tools completely on their own, what makes them more noteworthy than woodpecker finches or other animals that innately use tools?  What makes them rival and often exceed chimps in the cognitive department?  Tradition, the understanding of the functional properties of their tools, innovative use of tools, and cumulative tool evolution all combine to make NC crows stars in the world of animal cognition.

Gray and Hunt found that different tool types were being used by NC crows in different regions of New Caledonia.  These tool types were not reproduced by Kacelnik’s captive crows, which lends more support to those tools’ forms being based on a tradition, or culture, rather than just a genetic ability to make them (after all, humans babble as a precursor to language).  NC crows also understand the functional properties of the tools they use and make.  They use a range of materials and techniques for making tools, demonstrating that it’s the crow that decides on the tool, not the material.  Understanding of the functional properties of their tool was also demonstrated by Betty bending the wire, and again in further experiments.  One experiment even showed that the crows could determine the rigidity of tools that would be appropriate for a task.  Finally, NC crows show cumulative tool evolution, something we humans still clung to as unique to us.  Cumulative tool evolution is the ability to take a tool and modify it to a different or better function and build on previous technology.  The tools that were created by precisely snipping and tearing Pandanus spp. tree leaves (the form of which were not replicated by Kacelnik’s captive birds) showed strong evidence of enhancement over time.  Hunt and Gray found and compared tool types and their functions from all over the island, including historical records of negatives left in leaves up to four years old.  Their findings suggest that the Pandanus tools have had significant improvement on their shape and functionIf this doesn’t blow your mind, I don’t know what will!!

Researchers have since found evidence of cumulative tool evolution in chimpanzees as well.  And thus, the battle for most cognitively complex non-human tool user rages on between chimpanzees and NC crows.  In recent years, the ability to use tools to get tools (or meta-tool use) has been a focus of attention, with several studies demonstrating that NC crows can figure out what tool they need for a task, and use other tools to get the appropriate tool (here’s a video).  There have also been studies into the brains of New Caledonian crows, among other cognitive work that shows that these birds are truly complex animals that blur the line between human and non-human intelligence and understanding of the world around them.  Click here for The University of Auckland’s page on NC Crow research still run by Gray and Hunt, and here for a list of their publications which go well beyond what I’ve related to you here.  Both researchers at The University of Auckland and The University of Oxford are continuing work on these birds, so you should keep an eye out for their continued publications and findings.

I’m a huge fan of NC crows, if it wasn’t apparent.  One of my most treasured possessions is a genuine Pandanus tool made by a New Caledonian crow.  I even had one of Hunt and Gray’s papers signed (how big of a nerd can I be?), but that was sadly destroyed in a flood.  It is a life goal to make it to New Caledonia and observe these birds in the wild.  Thank you Pamela Turner for giving me an excuse to blather about NC crows and I hope all of you who read this now appreciate them as much as I do!


(via The Innovative Cockatoo: Figaro Invents, Makes, and Uses a Tool – ScienceNOW)

Not a corvid, but this article is an important lesson about animal cognition.  I’m interested in what animals are capable of in captivity when their basic needs are met and they have time to spend on thinking and other tasks that aren’t completely related to survival.

Food for thought!!