Goffin’s cockatoos join humans and chimpanzees as third species shown to carry tools for future tasks

From pocket knives to smartphones, man continues to invent ever more sophisticated tools. However, the idea that tool use is an exclusively human trait was shattered in the 1960s when Jane Goodall observed our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, scavenging termites from holes with stripped twigs.

Tool use in non-human animals is hotly debated. It is often thought that a big brain is needed to understand the properties of objects, how to finely manipulate them, and how to teach it to other members of a species.

Until recently, humans and chimpanzees stood out among tool-using species. They were thought to be the only species to use “tool sets”, in which a collection of different tools are used to complete a task. They were also thought to be the only animals to carry tools in anticipation of needing them later.

A third species joined the exclusive club of toolmakers in 2021, when Indonesian scientists saw wild Goffin’s cockatoos using three distinct types of tools to extract seeds from fruits. And in research published this week, researchers have shown that Goffin’s cockatoos can also take the next leap of logic, carrying a set of tools they’ll need for a future task.

Brilliant and enigmatic creatures

Parrots turned out to be something of an enigma. They are known to be very intelligent creatures, but they have rarely been seen using tools in the wild.

Curiously, the only parrot species known to regularly use tools in the wild is Australia’s own palm cockatoo, which uses them in a very unusual way. Males in northern Australia “make” drumsticks and husk tools for use in their complex courtship displays. They seize the drumstick or pod in the left foot and strike it against a hollow trunk in a rhythmic performance, with all the characteristics of human instrumental music.

Goffin’s 2021 study of wild cockatoos was particularly important because it showed the birds’ tools were similar in complexity to those made by chimpanzees, meaning their cognitive abilities could be directly compared.

A small number of Goffin’s cockatoos have been seen making a set of tools designed for three different purposes – wedging, cutting and spooning – and using them sequentially to access the seeds of fruit. It requires brain power similar to that of a chimpanzee that uses multiple tools to fish for termites.

Anticipate problems

A first stumbling block in interpreting chimpanzee tool set use was that no one could show whether they were viewing a collection of small tasks as a single problem, or whether they were using single tools. to solve separate problems.

The researchers finally solved this problem when they observed chimpanzees not only carrying their tools with them, but doing so flexibly and depending on the exact problems they faced. They had to think about it from start to finish!

This is precisely what Goffin’s cockatoos have now demonstrated (albeit in a captive setting). They have been confirmed as the third species that can not only use tools, but can carry tools in anticipation of needing them later.

This photo panel shows Figaro the flying cockatoo with two tools towards a box with a cashew nut. Image credit: Thomas Suchanek, CC BY-NC-SA

Inspired by the tools that chimpanzees use and carry around in the wild to extract termites from the ground, the study authors designed clever experiments to test Goffin’s cockatoos under similar circumstances.

The birds, initially ten in total, had to extract the cashews from the crates which required one or two types of tools. They were tested in different ways to examine their flexibility and innovation, but the piece de resistance came when reaching the box with the tools required extra movement, including climbing a ladder and flying. horizontal and vertical.

Although only five of the ten birds passed the previous experiments, four of those that did tended to carry both tools at once, in anticipation of needing them to open the two-tool box. In other words, these birds could categorize the two tools as a “tool set” and use them accordingly. Mission accomplished!

Nothing wrong with a bird brain

But what about needing a big brain for complex tasks?

Like primates, some bird species have enlarged forebrains that provide them with enhanced cognitive abilities, including insight and innovation, understanding the mental states of others, symbolic communication, episodic memory, and future planning.

Parrots are particularly well endowed with these abilities, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they can use tools as easily as chimpanzees. On the contrary, what is surprising is that more parrots were not seen carrying tools for future use.

It must be concluded that it is because wild parrots rarely face problems that require it. Parrots have strong feet and beaks that allow them to reach the toughest places and crack the toughest fruits and seeds. Yet brilliant individuals in captivity can spontaneously invent new tools to solve new problems, so there is no doubting their ability.

This new study is further proof that parrots belong to the exclusive animal world version of Mensa. Between the thoughtful planning shown by Goffin’s cockatoos and the palm cockatoo’s ability to play instruments, it seems we’ve only scratched the surface of what these remarkable birds can achieve.The conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image credit: Thomas SuchanekCC BY-SA

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