From my Hide: Animals, their tool boxes, and other news

David Holt-Biddle.

A SURVEY of scientific studies by a biologist at the Indianapolis Zoo in the United States of America shows that a remarkable spread of animal species, from chimpanzees down to echinoids (sea urchins and so on), use tools.

Dr Rob W. Shumaker says there are 22 tool-using activities that have been recorded, from echinoids and amphibians which perform just one activity, to affix, apply, or drape an object on the body, to certain monkeys and some of the great apes which perform all of the activities.

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Other tool-using activities include baiting or enticing; packaging liquids or objects for control or transport; pounding, hammering, clubbing or beating; jabbing, stabbing, penetrating or cutting; and inserting or probing.

Birds perform 18 of the activities, elephants 12, carnivores 10, rodents 8, cetaceans (like dolphins) 6, and then one gets down to fish and gastropods (snails) performing two activities.

Dr Shumaker says tool use is widespread and diverse, but it’s not necessarily a sign of intelligence, “We don’t even attempt to classify examples as thinking or not thinking”, he says.*

When I was at the marine research station at Shark Bay in Western Australia, I was told that dolphins had been recorded collecting sea sponges on their noses to protect them as they foraged for tidbits on the sandy sea bottom.

At Shark Bay, I remember a school of dolphins coming right up to the beach and, with permission from the researchers, I waded into the water until it was just over my knees.

A dolphin broke away from the others, came straight at me and brushed against my leg as it passed.

It was a most extraordinary experience to have that physical contact with a wild creature – I shall never forget it.

Moving on, Japanese researchers have established that the world’s biggest land-dwelling crustacean, the coconut crab, has an extraordinary grip.

A two kilogram specimen captured on Okinawa was found to have a grip of 1,800 newtons (a measurement of force), demonstrating just how these crabs manage to break open coconuts.

They may weigh up to four kilograms and measure a metre across (you wouldn’t want to meet one of those on a dark night).

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As a matter of interest an African crocodile’s jaw has a bite measuring 16,000 newtons, but we humans pale into insignificance with a 500 newton grip with our jaws and just 300 with our hands.**

Staying with crabs, researchers from Newcastle University in England have made the remarkable discovery that crustaceans retrieved from the deepest natural point on Earth, the more than 11 kilometre deep Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, show huge levels of industrial pollution.

The crustaceans had levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) 50 times higher than those found in China’s most polluted rivers.

POPs were banned world-wide in the 1970s, but because they can’t be broken down they remain in the environment in various ways.

The researchers believe that the POPs may have been taken down into the Mariana Trench by dead sea animals, already polluted, falling to the ocean floor.

POPs can be harmful to wildlife in many different ways, including marine creatures.**

*National Geographic magazine. **The Week: The Best of the British and Foreign Media.

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David Holt-Biddle

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