Puffins can use tools, scientists discover
Puffins are smarter than we think, a study suggests.
By Nathan Godin | Feb 11, 2020 | Print-friendly

Researchers reported a first-ever sighting of puffins in the wild using tools--a behavior typically only seen in humans and certain other mammals. In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers described seeing puffins use sticks to scratch their backs and chests.

The observations call for a rethink of our understanding of birds' brain power, the authors wrote in the paper. They noted that this use of sticks suggests a level of advanced intelligence that many scientists do not expect to find in birds.

"Seabirds' cognitive capacities may have been considerably underestimated," the paper states. "The fact that to date the only other birds seen scratching with a stick are parrots, prolific tool users and problem solvers, supports this hypothesis."

The researchers were using motion-activated cameras to film Atlantic puffins at two sites--one in Wales and one in Iceland. The cameras caught one puffin picking up a stick with its bill and scratching its back with the stick for five seconds. In another instance, a puffin used a stick to scratch its chest.

Tool use has appeared among parrots and some mammals, including elephants and certain primates, according to previous studies. Scientists have oberved these other animals scratching themselves with sticks and seen birds rubbing ants on themselves--they may be using a formic acid that the ants produce to keep insects and other parasites off their wings.

Annette Fayet, the study's first author, suggested that researchers investigate possible tool use in other species that they would not assume to be good tool-use candidates. These other species might surprise us by turning out to be tool users as well, she told reporters.