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Are We Unique?

Just a few decades ago, most people thought humans were the only animals that used tools. Then researchers found dozens of other species that use objects to accomplish tasks they couldn't with their bare paws, claws or jaws. But while tool use is not limited to humans, the way we use tools is certainly unique. Our capacity for symbolic thought helps us design tools and technologies that serve long-term plans. More than just extensions of our body, our tools form vast systems that perform tasks far beyond what any one person could do.

What Animals Can Do

Most animals don't use tools, and those that do tend to use simple found objects. But some animals make tools by breaking off pieces of found objects, and occasionally modifying them. They remove, detach, combine and alter objects in order to hammer, throw, probe, pry and sponge. But their planning ability is comparatively limited, preventing them from making complex tools from multiple materials and using them in complicated systems of technology.

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© Edward Kinsman / Photo Researchers, Inc.

The antlion (Myrmeleontide) lives at the bottom of this cone shaped hole which it creates to trap prey.

What Humans Can Do

While some other animals use tools, humans are much more adaptable; we can create tools and technologies for almost any situation. Modern humans make tools from multiple materials and improve them through planning and experimentation. We make complex, multipart machines and devise entire systems of technology, ranging from agricultural irrigation to electrical grids, in service of long-term, multistage plans. Using language, we can record and share technology accumulated over several generations.

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© Michel & Christine Denis-Huot / Photo Researchers, Inc.

An Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) with rocks that it will use to try to crack open an ostrich egg.

Sand Trap

The ant lion, an insect that digs a cone-shaped pit to catch other insects, flips sand at its victims to make them slide down the slope, where it kills and eats them. Using sand to exert a force at a distance could be considered tool use.

Birds With Rocks

Egyptian vultures have been observed cracking open ostrich eggs by striking them with rocks, throwing rocks at them or dropping rocks onto the eggs in order to feed upon the contents.

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© Stephen Dalton / Animals Animals

Archer fish firing jet of water to bring down prey

Nice Shot

Several species of "archer fish" hunt insects by squirting water up to three meters (10 feet) at their prey. When knocked off their perches or shot out of the air, the insects fall into the water, where the archer fish gobble them up.

A Head for Tools

Some dolphins have been observed breaking off marine sponges and using them to probe the sea floor for prey. Those rare dolphins that use sponges as tools appear to learn the technique from their mothers.

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