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tool use
Bring Back Bison

Let's bring bison back to our Zoo!

The tool area of the Think Tank exhibit looks at certain behaviors and asks the question, "Is thinking occurring here?" Scientists differ on how they define tools and tool use. Think Tank presents definitions developed by three scientists and then poses a number of scenarios to help visitors explore these definitions as well as their own opinions. The three scientists define tools this way:

  • Jane Goodall defines tool use as "the use of an external object as a functional extension of mouth or beak, hand or claw, in the attainment of an immediate goal."
  • John Alcock defines tool use as "the manipulation of an inanimate object, not internally manufactured, with the effect of improving the animal's efficiency in altering the form or position of some separate object."
  • Ben Beck defines tool use as "the external employment of an unattached environmental object to alter more efficiently the form, position, or condition of another object, another organism, or the user itself when the user holds or carries the tool during or just prior to use and is responsible for the proper and effective orientation of the tool."

The Think Tank exhibit presents five questions to help visitors define tool use, and for each question, presents three examples. The questions are:

  • Can a tool be alive?
  • Can a tool be a part of the user's body?
  • Can a tool be made in its user's body?
  • Must the user hold or carry the tool?
  • Must the user manipulate the tool?

Visitors are asked to decide if a cow is a tool. Cows have long served humans as containers for meat and milk, but are they tools? Think Tank does not provide a definitive answer to these questions because there is no single correct definition of tool use. However, it is stressed that any definition used must be applied consistently.

In Think Tank's display of "tool boxes" there are tools used by humans over millions of years and a display on the history of hammers. Tool use by chimpanzees is examined in one of the tool boxes as well as interpretive panels. In this area, visitors can test their skill at "termite fishing" at a termite mound. Tool use by other species is also examined. It is shown that very complex tool-using behaviors may not be thinking-based, particularly those in relatively small-brained animals.

Hermit crabs, for example, select shells for protection, but they are probably not thinking when they adopt an abandoned shell because they don't show flexibility. Hermit crabs are very selective about the type and dimensions of a shell, but if there are none available, the hermit crab will go without a shell which exposes the crab to injury and predation. Some animals, such as elephants, dolphins, orang utans, and sea otters show flexibility in their tool use, and therefore, are probably thinking.