Over millions of years, humans have developed a talent for transforming bits of nature into objects that make daily tasks easier. We got so good at it, we started to think tool-use among animals was a rather exclusive club – as it turns out, we were wrong.
Adding to the long list of animals that use tools, we now have evidence that suggests pigs might be using sticks to construct their nests.
We’ve long known that other apes can make and use tools. So can crows. Dolphins use sponges to protect their snoz while foraging. Octopuses have an interesting use for coconut shells. Given their smarts, it’s shocking that science has been silent on the topic of porcine tool use.
“When I looked up tool use in pigs, there was nothing,” Université Paris-Saclay ecologist Meredith Root-Bernstein told Christine Dell’Amore at National Geographic.
Yet when Root-Bernstein visited the famous Jardin des Plantes zoo in Paris in late 2015, that was exactly what she saw – a Visayan warty pig (Sus cebifrons) using a piece of bark to push around loose soil in its enclosure.
Her observations would have been a prime opportunity to fill a gap in the literature. Sadly, over successive months, Root-Bernstein didn’t get a repeat performance to analyse further. But every time she stopped by, that notable bark shank was lying somewhere different in the enclosure, often suspiciously near a patch of churned earth.
Figuring it might have something to do with the species’ desire to build nests, Root-Bernstein returned the following year with several colleagues to solve the mystery of the potential digging stick.
During the winter months, a member of Root-Bernstein’s team hid food in an effort to identify whether foraging behaviour might help explain the potential tool use.
When this proved to be a dead end, the team came back the following October to watch the pigs during their nesting season. It was then the team noticed the adult female – which they affectionately named Priscilla – using a piece of wood to move soil.