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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Sorry, Darwin! Orangutan Hats and Other Tools Animals Use by Richard Haynes

MAN THE TOOLMAKER! So proclaimed natural history scientists until the last decades of the twentieth century.

Darwin himself had noted what appeared to be incidental tool use, but when Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees choosing and shaping twigs to extract high-protein termites from their mounds and demonstrating to their offspring how to do it, she realized that what she was seeing was a tool-using, tool-making culture being passed down through generations.

Soon researchers in the New Caledonian tropics observed native crows coaching the young into intentionally shaping stiff leaves into hooks to fish nutritious grubs out of logs. Once primed to look for that trait, nature scientists soon noted tool use among a wide range of animals, from the heron who dangles earthworms as lures for fish to primates who defend themselves by throwing rocks or coconuts and welding clubs and spears against preying lions. Nature science would never be the same.

Author Richard Haynes introduces middle readers to recent research into animal tool use in his fascinating book, forthcoming today Orangutan Hats and Other Tools Animals Use (Candlewick Press, 2021), divided into chapters on tools for hygiene, health and healing, hunting and harvesting, comfort and pleasure, with humorous and realistic illustrations of Stephanie Laberis. Beginning with cleanliness, Haynes describes how primates like chimps and gorillas use leaves as napkins, toilet paper, and handy-wipes for freshening their fur. They choose plant parts as toothpicks, and fibers for tooth flossing, including macaques who snatch hairs right off passing human heads for dental floss!

Tropical animals like hippos and elephants smear mud, dust, and leafy debris as a sunscreen on their wide backs, and elephants choose sharp sticks to loosen ticks from their skin. Spider monkeys use crushed ants and noxious millipedes as insect repellants. Other primates know the right leaves for disinfecting wipes, and orangutans know the best plants for poultices for easing pain.

And for defense against other animals, monkeys and apes are skilled at collecting and hurling objects--rocks, logs, and even feces--at enemies and fending off snakes and preying cats with forked or pointed sticks or dropped rocks. Small boxer crabs wave poisonous anemones in their claws. Sea otters put flat stones on their bellies, place a mollusk on top and batter it with a big stone until the shell is broken and the nuturitious meat is all theirs! Capuchin monkeys pound dry soil into dust with stones to get at roots and tubers. And then there are the probe makers--monkeys and apes have learned to probe or dig with prepared sticks. The bottlenosed dolphins of Shark Bay, Australia, use their noses to probe the shallow sea bottom for burrowing fish, teach their young to protect their tender noses by shaping live sponges to fit over them for foraging the rocky sea floor.

Animals also teach their young how to make themselves more comfortable. Noticing that branches can offer shelter from rain, orangutans figured out that separated from the tree, they became portable umbrellas to take along in the rain. Elephants select the best branches as fly swatters, and the tailorbird sews large leaves together to make homes for their brood. And just for fun, crows convert found objects like jar lids into sleds for sliding down roofs, and ravens choose objects for games of catch on the wing or as toboggans in snow. Animals as large as American bisons have been observed "ice-skating" just for joy of it.

Should we humans feel displaced from our lofty position as the only tool user on Earth? Or should we rejoice that we are not the only ones planning ahead on the planet? We share many characteristics with our fellow creatures which we now recognize, one of which is the ability to shape and use tools. As author Richard Haynes puts it...

"LIKE US THEY THINK, THEY STUDY, THEY CONSIDER. WHAT SEEMED IMPOSSIBLE IS NOW POSSIBLE, THANKS TO THE USE OF A TOOL.

Haynes also adds those helpful human literary tools, a glossary, bibliography, and index. Says Kirkus, "Readers will devour this dynamic and informative explanation of the inventiveness to be found within the animal world."

For more astounding books on toolmaking animal geniuses, see my reviews here and here.

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