Nevertheless, many authors have insisted that man is divided by an insuperable barrier from all the lower animals in his mental faculties. [..] It has been asserted that man alone is capable of progressive improvement; that he alone makes use of tools or fire, domesticates other animals, or possesses property…
Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, Ch III, 1871
Less than a century after Darwin published a book arguing for the many structural and mental similarities between humans and animals, the famous primate researcher Jane Goodall observed a chimpanzee poke a termite mound with pieces of grass in a successful attempt to “fish” the termites out.
Since then we can’t claim anymore that only humans are capable of tool use. Indeed, you probably already know not only about monkeys fishing for termites, but also about monkeys hunting with “spears”.
There is the sea otter leisurely swimming on its back while carrying a rock on its chest to crack seashells on. There are elephants waving around tree branches with their trunks to swat flies.
Even animals with no hand-like appendages to speak of engage in tool use activities. Indeed, New Caledonian crows have a relatively sophisticated tool use system for insect foraging that even appears to be culturally transmitted between related groups of birds.
We can’t help but attribute a perceived intelligence to any animal whom we observe performing actions beyond those described as purely instinctual. Indeed, as the authors of a forthcoming book on animal tool use put it, “we may be prone to attributing some of our human cognitive qualities to those species that display a behavior that is strongly tied to our own species identity.” So we describe the monkeys and otters as smart and marvel at their human-like behaviour.
Turns out this smartness extends further into the animal kingdom than perhaps even Darwin would have wagered. Behold, a video of a fish using a rock to break open a tasty clam after digging it out from the sandy ocean floor:
The fish in question, also pictured1 above, is an orange-dotted tuskfish from the wrasse family, and it’s the fourth observed case of wrasses using rocks as aids in retrieving their lunch.
According to professor Bernardi who shot this impressive footage, “It requires a lot of forward thinking, because there are a number of steps involved. For a fish, it’s a pretty big deal.” You can read the full case report here.
For all we know, the ocean floor is potentially littered with little carnivorous fishes using rocks as anvils and probably doing all kinds of other clever stuff.
So, which animal will be next?