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Puffins use ‘tools’ to scratch, take care of themselves and remove ticks

Puffins use ‘tools’ to scratch, take care of themselves and remove ticks – suggesting they may be more intelligent than previously thought

  • UK-led researchers made two observations of puffins with tools
  • Both took place on islands – one off the coast of Wales, the other off Iceland
  • Sea birds have small brains and therefore thought they were limited thinkers
  • Parrots are the only other birds that are known to use chopsticks to care for themselves

Puffins use wooden chopsticks as a tool for scratching, grooming and possibly removing ticks – suggesting that seabirds may be smarter than they thought.

The use of tools is rare behavior for animals – an activity that is largely limited to primates and perching birds when performing complex, often food-related tasks.

However, zoologists led by the University of Oxford have reported two observations of the use of puffin, one from Iceland and the other from Pembrokeshire, Wales.

Puffins use wooden chopsticks as a tool for scratching, grooming and possibly removing ticks - suggesting that seabirds may be smarter than they thought. In the photo a puffin on the Icelandic island of Grimsey is scratching in July 2018 with a stick on his chest

Puffins use wooden chopsticks as a tool for scratching, grooming and possibly removing ticks – suggesting that seabirds may be smarter than they thought. In the photo a puffin on the Icelandic island of Grimsey is scratching in July 2018 with a stick on his chest

WHICH OTHER ANIMALS ARE KNOWN TO USE TOOLS?

Tool use is rare behavior for animals.

This is largely limited to primates and perching birds when performing complex, often nutrition-related, tasks.

Among the animals that use tools are:

  • chimpanzees
  • Crows
  • dolphins
  • elephants
  • Gorillas
  • macaques
  • octopuses
  • Orangutans
  • rodents
  • Sea otters

Zoologist Annette Fayet from the University of Oxford and colleagues documented two cases in which puffins were observed with the aid of sticks as a tool for care.

In the first observation, a puffin on the island of Skomer off the coast of Pembrokeshire in Wales with a wooden stick, which he held in his account, was scratching his back in June 2014.

In July 2018, the researchers also recorded video of tool usage by a puffin on Grimsey – an island outside northern Iceland.

The images show that the little bird takes a wooden stick from the ground in its mouth and then uses it to scratch its chest.

Dr. Fayet and colleagues believe that the puffins waving the tool were likely to practice some kind of care practice – either scratch the stick or remove parasites such as ticks.

“The case of our puffins may reflect a specific ecological need that occurs only in certain circumstances,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

“For example, puffins suffer from ticks from seabirds, Ixodes uriae, which were particularly abundant on Grimsey Island in the summer of 2018.”

“The stick may have helped scratch or loosen them, perhaps more effectively than the mouth.”

The use of tools is rare behavior for animals - an activity that is largely limited to primates and perching birds when performing complex, often food-related tasks. In the photo, a puffin on the Icelandic island of Grimsey grabs a stick to use as an aid in July 2018

The use of tools is rare behavior for animals - an activity that is largely limited to primates and perching birds when performing complex, often food-related tasks. In the photo, a puffin on the Icelandic island of Grimsey grabs a stick to use as an aid in July 2018

The use of tools is rare behavior for animals – an activity that is largely limited to primates and perching birds when performing complex, often food-related tasks. In the photo, a puffin on the Icelandic island of Grimsey grabs a stick to use as an aid in July 2018

Dr. Fayet and colleagues believe that the puffins with tools (photo) were probably engaged in some form of care by using the stick to scratch or remove ticks

Dr. Fayet and colleagues believe that the puffins with tools (photo) were probably engaged in some form of care by using the stick to scratch or remove ticks

Dr. Fayet and colleagues believe that the puffins waving the tool probably did some form of grooming - use the stick to scratch or remove ticks (shown in a close-up illustration)

Dr. Fayet and colleagues believe that the puffins waving the tool probably did some form of grooming - use the stick to scratch or remove ticks (shown in a close-up illustration)

Dr. Fayet and colleagues believe that the puffins with tools (left) were probably engaged in some form of care by using the stick to scratch or remove ticks (pictured right)

The authors note that puffins feed in unpredictable environments - an existence that probably requires the integration of different information sources to make complex decisions

The authors note that puffins feed in unpredictable environments - an existence that probably requires the integration of different information sources to make complex decisions

The authors note that puffins feed in unpredictable environments – an existence that probably requires the integration of different information sources to make complex decisions

The findings suggest that the brainpower of puffins and other seabirds may need to be reassessed, the authors argue.

“The relative brain size of seabirds is relatively small and they are generally not described as possessing advanced cognitive skills,” they wrote.

Nevertheless, the authors note that puffins feed in unpredictable environments – an existence that probably requires the integration of various sources of physical and social information to make complex decisions.

“Solving such problems requires behavioral flexibility and skills in multiple domains, including learning, memory, and planning,” the team wrote – all indicators for a higher level of cognitive capacity.

“The fact that to date the only other birds that are scratched with a stick are parrots, users of productive tools and problem solvers, supports this hypothesis,” they concluded.

The full findings of the study were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings suggest that the brainpower of puffins and other seabirds may need to be reassessed, the authors argue. In the photo, after finishing crabbing, the puffin stands above his improvised device on the island of Grimsey in July 2018

The findings suggest that the brainpower of puffins and other seabirds may need to be reassessed, the authors argue. In the photo, after finishing crabbing, the puffin stands above his improvised device on the island of Grimsey in July 2018

The findings suggest that the brainpower of puffins and other seabirds may need to be reassessed, the authors argue. In the photo, after finishing crabbing, the puffin stands above his improvised device on the island of Grimsey in July 2018

Zoologists led by the University of Oxford have reported two observations of the use of puffin, one from Iceland and the other from Pembrokeshire, Wales

Zoologists led by the University of Oxford have reported two observations of the use of puffin, one from Iceland and the other from Pembrokeshire, Wales

Zoologists led by the University of Oxford have reported two observations of the use of puffin, one from Iceland and the other from Pembrokeshire, Wales

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