Cockatoos crack multi tool use

It might be the only example of such sophisticated behaviour other than by humans...
17 February 2023

Interview with 

Antonio Mascaro, University of Vienna




And now to the animal kingdom and an equivalently clever cockatoo species. Goffin’s Cockatoos live in parts of Indonesia and they’ve been found to be capable of one of the most complex pieces of animal thinking ever encountered: they use tools to complete tasks; but not just one type of tool, several. And they can even plan ahead and take just the right number of different tools to get the job done. If only my builder could do that! Will Tingle takes up the story…

Will - Tool use, or using an external object to change something about another object, is very commonplace in our lives. Chopping food with a knife? That’s tool use. Driving a car is tool use, albeit a very complex tool. Tool use features in the animal kingdom too, but it’s a rare piece of cognitive behaviour, and has only been observed in 32 species so far. But even still there’s a step above tool use, which is tool sets. That is to say two or more tools with different functions being used together to achieve a single outcome. And that is even rarer still, as the University of Vienna’s Antonio Osuna Mascaro explains…

Antonio - There are only two species out there in the wild able to use tool sets or that are using tool sets out there. One is chimpanzees and the other is Goffin's cockatoos.

Will - The Goffin’s cockatoo is a parrot that lives in Indonesia and they are big fans of the stone inside a fruit of the ‘sea mango’ plant. But the fruit’s flesh itself is very toxic, and the cockatoos beak isn’t strong enough to open the stone. So what to do? Well, the cockatoos have been employing a form of tool manipulation that might put even the chimpanzees to shame.

Antonio - What the cockatoos did by surprise was to use three different kinds of tools to have access to this stone. The first one was the use of a tool with the function of a knife. They used this to cut in between both halves of the stone of this fruit after removing the flesh. Then they use a wedge to separate both halves slightly. And when they had this opening, they use a tool with the function of a spoon to be able to eat the insides of this stone. This is a pretty impressive kind of tool use and could be the most complex case of tool use out there in nature.

Will - So using a knife, a wedge, and a spoon to get to their food is impressive enough, but that's only a half of the cognitive conundrum. Do these cockatoos know which tools are needed for each step? And if so, would they only take the necessary amount of tools? If one of the steps was removed,

Antonio - We had five birds being tested and out of those five birds, four of them were able to transport eventually, and three of them were able to transport in a flexible way, even when this required flying with both tools. And that was amazing. That means that they were picking up and transporting both tools together every time that they were facing a problem that requires the use of both tools. And they were picking up both tools only sometimes when they were facing a problem that doesn't require both tools. So they were able to categorize both tools as a toolset. As we like to say, for them, a toolset is more than the sum of its parts.

Will - Goffin’s cockatoos then have the ability to not only understand which tools are necessary, but also which ones sometimes aren’t. So what is the reason for these cognitively confident cockatoos?

Antonio - Goffin's cockatoos are a very particular species. They learn to use tools in the same way as we do, and they learn by combining objects as toddlers do, by playing with different objects and combining them and then eventually finding functions and ways of using tools. We have 18 individuals in our lab and many of them know how to use tools, but it is interesting to see how each single individual uses tools in different ways. They have different techniques, different approaches. So each one of them have a different way of using tools and a different approach. And that is telling us that they're using their general cognitive capabilities to use tools. They're flexible enough that they can learn to use tools.

Will - The ability to use their claws and beaks to personally interact and combine tools allows them to form ideas as to which tools would work best, and in what order. This means they have a more complex knowledge of tool manipulation than any other animal besides us. Such behavioural complexity allows the Goffin’s Cockatoo to be outstanding in their field. Or, more likely their tree.


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