Skilful cockatoos able to shape tools from different materials

The Goffin´s cockatoo is able to succeed in making tools even out of cardborads, although this bird is neither known to use tools in the wild, nor to have evolved this ability. (Photo: Bene Croy

Cockatoo cardboards  1

Tool manufacture was once regarded a defining feature of mankind, but it is now known that a variety of animal species use and make their own tools. Researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna and the University of Oxford have shown that Goffin’s cockatoos can make and use elongated tools of appropriate shape and length out of amorphous materials, suggesting that the birds can anticipate how the tools will be used. The study was published in the journal Biology Letters.

The Goffin’s cockatoo is a particularly interesting example for scientists to study, as it is unlikely to have a repertoire of inherited tool-related skills and relies more on innovation and problem-solving. This cockatoo is native to Indonesia and is neither known to use tools in the wild nor to have evolved related abilities for manipulating twigs for other purposes such as nest building. Several of these birds previously displayed the ability to spontaneously (ie without training) make tools by biting long splinters out of the wooden beams.

While impressive, these feats do not prove sensitivity to the need for the tools to be of a particular shape: because wood is fibrous, biting and pulling actions naturally split it into the long, narrow pieces that were necessary to succeed. If individuals are capable of anticipating the requirements of each tool, they should be able to produce functional instruments by displaying different actions and using different materials.

Cockatoos can even use cardboards for shaping tools

To test if the birds were in fact aiming to make elongated tools that could bridge a particular distance, the researchers gave them the problem of reaching a piece of food placed a few centimetres beyond a circular hole in the transparent wall of a box. They were given four different materials that required different manipulations to produce suitable tools: larch wood (already familiar to them), leafy beech twigs (which had to be trimmed to be functional), cardboard (which, lacking a fibrous structure, could be cut into any shape and length), and totally amorphous beeswax.

Dr Alice Auersperg, who heads the Goffin Laboratory in the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, said: ‘While none of the birds succeeded in making tools out of beeswax, we found that at least some of them could make suitable tools from the three remaining materials.’ The successful parrots made well-shaped tools, even though each material required different manipulation techniques. “To us, the tools made from cardboard were the most interesting ones, as this material was not pre-structured and required the birds to shape their tools more actively”, explains Auersperg.

Read the press release “Skilful cockatoos able to shape tools from different materials” for further information.

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