Tool use discovered in seabirds

The trademark of the puffins is their colorful beak (Image: ps50ace / istock)

They use stick or stone specifically for their purposes: tool use is only known from a few animal species. This community of animal tinkerers has now received a surprising new entry: Researchers have documented how puffins use sticks in their beaks for personal hygiene. This suggests that seabirds may have more complex cognitive abilities than previously thought, the biologists say.

Humans have taken the concept to the extreme, but there are also sophisticated tool users in the animal world. The behavior of our closest relatives – the great apes – is particularly sophisticated. They get various objects from their environment, sometimes even adapt them and then use them for different purposes, such as cracking nuts or fishing for termites. The use of tools is also known from elephants and the bird world also has some amazingly clever inventors to offer.

Clever seabirds: puffins

Especially the representatives of the raven birds and the parrot birds, which are considered to be particularly intelligent, are known to use tools, sometimes in a complex manner. The focus is usually on food procurement. But personal hygiene through tools has also been observed: in addition to monkeys and elephants, parrots with sticks sometimes scratch themselves on hard-to-reach parts of the body. Exactly this behavior is also evident in a bird that bears the name “parrot” but actually has nothing to do with these birds: the puffin (Fratercula arctica) is a representative of the seabirds. This is a group that was previously not known for high cognitive performance.

The characteristic feature of the puffins is the colorful beak in which they often carry fish that they have collected. The birds, about the size of pigeons, breed in earth caves on some coasts in the northern Atlantic and in the western Arctic Ocean. As researchers from Annette Fayeta of the University of Oxford report, the observations of the tool use of these birds come to them at two distant locations: in a breeding colony on the coast of Wales and in Iceland, over 1,700 kilometers away.

A stick to scratch

In Wales, scientists observed a puffin in the water holding a wooden stick in its beak, scratching its back for about five seconds. Apparently he had previously collected the tool on land and taken it to his resting place on the water surface. In Iceland, the researchers were even able to capture the behavior on video using a camera trap: You can see a puffin who picks up a wooden stick from the floor and scratches his chest. The video broke off shortly after scratching. In subsequent recordings, however, the stick was on the floor. Apparently the bird dropped it after use. The researchers see this as an indication that the behavior is not related to the procurement of nesting material.

But why do the birds scratch themselves so intensely and even with the help of tools? According to the researchers, the puffin colonies are often heavily infested with ticks. The behavior of the birds presumably tries to remove the parasites from their plumage or to relieve itching. Their specially shaped beak may not be well suited for this, the scientists explain.
So far, however, it remains unclear how the birds develop their behavior. They may learn from other people’s observations. But it could also be instinctive behavior. The researchers now want to investigate these questions through further investigations.

“In summary, our discovery shows how important it is to extend the discussion about the development of work use in animals to a broader scope,” the researchers write. “We encourage others to include animal species that have traditionally not been considered good candidates for tooling. In our case, the findings now justify further studies on the cognitive abilities of seabirds – an issue that has so far been neglected, but clearly has potential, ”said the scientists.

Source: Technical article: PNAS, doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1918060117

Video: A puffin gets a stick and scratches its chest with it. (Movie courtesy of Annette L. Fayet)

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