A team of animal specialists has analyzed two Atlantic puffins, located more than 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) away from each other, spontaneously scratching themselves with sticks. This was the first time ever wild seabirds have been observed using tools, a new paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says.
This is incredibly exciting for a number of reasons, and it demonstrates that wild birds are capable of using tools and have a reason to use them. Perhaps puffins are not as bird-brained as scientists believed until now, because animals who use tools usually have higher cognitive capacities, author Annette Fayet explained.
In addition, the birds depicted the same actions on different islands, at the same time. Therefore, while it might be not so typical for these birds to scratch themselves with branches, the behavior is not limited to a single species.
“Seabirds’ physical cognition may have been underestimated,” the authors wrote.
More Advanced Than Believed
Scientists analyzed two puffins, one that lives in Wales, an the other on an Icelandic island, using a stick to scratch themselves. In the footage from Iceland, the puffin walks towards the camera, picks up a stick in its beak, and scratches itself with the tool.
The researchers were not sure why the puffins took the sticks, but they suggested it needed to get rid of seabird ticks that scourge coastal populations. It is possible that the branch was a more efficient way to remove the ticks than its beak.
The Second Kind of Tool Birds Use
The paper eliminates any doubts that the birds were just building nests, as puffins are special, and would rather cover their nests with softer materials, such as grass and feathers. The footage from the Iceland island shows the bird gathering both. The stick it used as a tool then remained in the grass, right where the swollen-chested bird dropped it.
Animals use such tools for a couple of reasons, the experts say, mainly to feed. It is, however, typical for some to maintain themselves using tools, such as chimpanzees that groom or wipe themselves with objects they find in nature, and parrots scratching with sticks.
“Our observations alone cannot solve the puzzle of the evolution of animal tool use,” Fayet said. “Many more species may also be using tools, but we simply haven’t observed them yet.”