Behavioral research: Looking ahead: Cockatoos come with a tool set if required

behavioral research
Looking ahead: Cockatoos come with a tool set if required

The photo

© Thomas Suchanek/dpa

Whether sea otters or chimpanzees: many an animal knows how to use tools. However, the list of species using entire tool sets is short. There is now a parrot.

Tool use is found in quite a few, mostly particularly intelligent animal species. Goffin cockatoos go even further: If necessary, they come directly with a set of tools, as a research team reports in the journal “Current Biology”.

This put them in the extremely short list of known animal species that use and transport tool kits. “Their behavioral flexibility is amazing,” said Antonio Osuna-Mascaró from the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna (Vetmeduni).

In the tests, the cockatoos had to use two tools to get a cashew nut: they first had to puncture a membrane inside a transparent box with a short, pointed wooden stick and then use a longer, soft straw to push the nut behind it off a small pedestal . The pen was too short to fish for the nut, the handle too soft to destroy the film with it.

Approach with two tools in the luggage

To the surprise of the scientists, two of the cockatoos – Figaro and Fini – completed the task on the first attempt in just 31 and 34 seconds, respectively. “I didn’t expect such speed,” said Osuna-Mascaró. Overall, seven out of ten birds successfully completed the task.

A second experiment showed that the cockatoos acted with foresight: the five animals tested there each had the opportunity to get a tool, bring it to the nut box, then return and get the second tool to complete the task end. Instead, four of them would have taken both tools with them in advance in the course of the tests, only one of the animals never, explained Osuna-Mascaró.

This procedure is reminiscent of that of chimpanzees when catching termites: According to the researchers, the primates also come to the termite mound with a set of tools. They first break holes in the mound with a short, sturdy stick and then fish for termites with a long, flexible one. From other species – apart from humans – a targeted use of multi-part sets is not yet known.

Parrots “underestimated and understudied”

It has long been known that captive Goffin’s cockatoos use and make tools. A study with the birds recently revealed that they use up to three different tools to get the seeds of a particular fruit, the researchers said. However, it was unclear whether the animals viewed these as a set – or whether they only realized the need for each new tool after a completed step.

The current study now confirms that cockatoos do indeed recognize in advance that a task will require more than one tool. “We believe that parrots have been underestimated and understudied in terms of technical understanding and tool use,” said Alice Auersperg, lead author of the study and cognitive biologist at Vetmeduni.

Goffin cockatoos are originally from the Tanimbar Islands of Indonesia. The rather small parrots have snow-white plumage.


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