Down in Jungleland: Tool Story

Down in Jungleland: Tool Story

Much like humans, animals have fashioned their own tools — with far less devastating consequences.

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Animals do use tools but none of them have, as yet, discovered how to make fire.

Till as late as the 1960s, we believed that one of the major differences between us and the rest of the animal kingdom was our ability to make and use tools. But then, our egos suffered a devastating blow: in the jungles of Gombe in Africa, Jane Goodall observed a chimpanzee pluck and trim a stem of grass and insert it into a termite mound. The furious termites clambered up the stem only to be happily slurped up by the chimp. The chimp kept repeating the process. He had, in fact, fashioned his own fishing rod and gone fishing for termites. We were not alone! And that was not all. Chimps were also observed using rocks to bash open hard shells and fruits (which other monkeys also do), to throw them at their enemies and wave sticks around, like lynch mobs do today. Even worse, adolescent females, especially, were seen sharpening sticks with their teeth and thrusting these like spears into hollows where bush-babies cowered — and then checked the spear tips for blood! Chimps were also seen chewing up leaves and using these like sponges to suck up water in hollows to enable them to drink.

The gorillas and orangutans were not far behind. In 2005, a western lowland gorilla (a lady, this time) was observed picking up a stick and using it to check the depth of a pool she wanted to cross. Then, she used it as a walking stick. Orangutans (as well as chimpanzees) have been observed using broad leaves as umbrellas during downpours — and orangutans that are accustomed to our company (never a good influence) imitate the way we wash clothes by the riverbank or use a saw to cut wood. (Not that these activities would be of the slightest use to the animal).

Elephants designed fly-whisks and backscratchers from branches, and used strips of chewed up bark to plug small waterholes (which they had dug) to prevent the water from evaporating. Dada bulls would heave heavy logs or rocks at electric fences to short-circuit or simply destroy them.

Bottle-nosed dolphins have been known to cover their snouts with sponges or shells before scouring the sea bed for tidbits (There are many spiny creatures and sharp rocks that could otherwise injure them).


Crows are thought to be the smartest amongst birds (though parrots might have something to say about this) and the new Caledonian crow is considered to be the Einstein among crows. This fellow, too, fashions twigs into fishing rods (and prods) to enable it to get to an otherwise unreachable tidbit. Crows have also been known to do the dropping-of-pebbles-in-a- pitcher-of-water stunt, as described in Aesop’s Fables. The American alligator has been known to arrange twigs on its head — to lure nest-building birds to come and pick them up. When they do, well, lunch is served for the gator!

So yes, animals use tools but we needn’t worry. None of them have, as yet, discovered how to make fire. Though, our very own black kite will — with its goonda friends — spread a wildfire by dropping burning twigs in unburned areas so they can snap up even more fleeing insects and rodents. But yes, these so-called tools are primitive.

But then, do animals really need sophisticated tools to get what they want? Cheetahs accelerate faster than Ferraris, pit vipers have heat-seeking sensors, eagles can winkle out a rabbit in a field from kilometers away, sharks smell a drop of blood in a whole ruddy ocean, bats use sonar, birds and bees see ultraviolet light, a falcon can dive at 320 kmph, snakes have a cocktail of venom that can bleed, paralyse or liquefy you to death, spiders’ silk still has us in a tizzy, seed pods can parasail across continents, chameleons and octopuses wear invisibility cloaks, and, migratory birds have built in sat-navigation — the list
is endless!

We had the best brains in the business, and so were able to design miraculous tools. But look where we have ended up: we’ve gassed up the earth’s air, poisoned the water and have stockpiled enough weaponry to destroy ourselves a million times over.

So really, who is the monkey with the wrench?