Not only are puffins using tools, but the behavior is probably widespread.
As if puffins weren’t awesome enough, we can now add puffins to a select group of creatures: tool users. Specifically, puffins were spotted picking up sticks and using them to scratch their backs. It might not seem like much, but it suggests that puffins’ cognitive abilities are far more impressive than we gave them credit for.
It’s not the first time puffins would exhibit surprising qualities.
You wouldn’t think the puffin as much of a flier if you’d look at one. It’s not just the overall funky look: puffins have rounded bodies which don’t exactly scream ‘aerodynamic’ — nothing like the sleek shape boasted by many seabirds. But puffins can fly for hundreds of kilometers at a speed of up to 55 mph (88 km / h), beating their wings 400 times a minute. They also have an amazing ability to find their way home across thousands of miles and reunite with their mate.
In addition to their physical qualities, they now have the mental abilities to boast.
Researchers observed two puffins from separate colonies using wooden sticks to scratch their bodies. This is big news not just for puffins, but for seabirds in general, who were “previously thought to lack the ability, need, or opportunity to use tools,” researchers note. Sea-dwelling birds can now safely be added to the group capable of “body-care-related tool use.” Here’s one of the videos:
The two puffins spotted scratching themselves with tools were a part of different colonies: one was in Wales and the other one was in Iceland, over a thousand miles apart. This is either one big coincidence or, more likely, an indication that this behavior is widespread.
It’s also significant, researchers add, that puffins use tools for something else other than extracting food — one of the most common reasons why animals start to use tools. The fact that they use sticks for scratching, a rather low-importance (but oh-so-pleasant) task is quite remarkable.
It’s also notable that this is “true” tool usage — the object is detached from the substrate, as opposed to “borderline” tool usage, where the tool remains part of the substrate.
So far, the list of creatures capable of using tools is surprisingly short, and the list of creatures using tools for such trivial purposes is even shorter. This means some high praise for puffins is in order, but researchers also say that there’s a good chance many other species are using tools, but we just haven’t seen them yet.
The study has been published in PNAS.