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Animal tool use: current definitions and an updated comprehensive catalog

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image of Behaviour

Despite numerous attempts to define animal tool use over the past four decades, the definition remains elusive and the behaviour classification somewhat subjective. Here, we provide a brief review of the definitions of animal tool use and show how those definitions have been modified over time. While some aspects have remained constant (i.e., the distinction between 'true' and 'borderline' tool use), others have been added (i.e., the distinction between 'dynamic' and 'static' behaviours). We present an updated, comprehensive catalog of documented animal tool use that indicates whether the behaviours observed included any 'true' tool use, whether the observations were limited to captive animals, whether tool manufacture has been observed, and whether the observed tool use was limited to only one individual and, thus, 'anecdotal' (i.e., N = 1). Such a catalog has not been attempted since Beck (1980). In addition to being a useful reference for behaviourists, this catalog demonstrates broad tool use and manufacture trends that may be of interest to phylogenists, evolutionary ecologists, and cognitive evolutionists. Tool use and tool manufacture are shown to be widespread across three phyla and seven classes of the animal kingdom. Moreover, there is complete overlap between the Aves and Mammalia orders in terms of the tool use categories (e.g., food extraction, food capture, agonism) arguing against any special abilities of mammals. The majority of tool users, almost 85% of the entries, use tools in only one of the tool use categories. Only members of the Passeriformes and Primates orders have been observed to use tools in four or more of the ten categories. Thus, observed tool use by some members of these two orders (e.g., Corvus, Papio) is qualitatively different from that of all other animal taxa. Finally, although there are similarities between Aves and Mammalia, and Primates and Passeriformes, primate tool use is qualitatively different. Approximately 35% of the entries for this order demonstrate a breadth of tool use (i.e., three or more categories by any one species) compared to other mammals (0%), Aves (2.4%), and the Passeriformes (3.1%). This greater breadth in tool use by some organisms may involve phylogenetic or cognitive differences — or may simply reflect differences in length and intensity of observations. The impact that tool usage may have had on groups' respective ecological niches and, through niche-construction, on their respective evolutionary trajectories remains a subject for future study.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Anthropology, Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA 50112, USA;, Email:; 2: Department of Anthropology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA


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