Stick-Toting Puffins Show First Evidence Of Tool Use By Seabirds

Who doesn’t like puffins? Just look at the picture, they’re adorable. And if for some reason you don’t find them cute, the Telegraph reports that Gordon Ramsay thinks they’re also quite delicious. However, if you’re in the “Let’s eat the little guys” camp, you might meet a lot more resistance in the future than Chef Ramsay did when he hunted puffins for his show The F Word in 2008 — and, it should be noted, Ramsay says he “almost died” in the process.

As Science News tells us, University of Oxford ecologist Annette Fayet was observing a puffin colony near the coast of Wales when she suddenly noticed something. One of the puffins was chilling out at sea, holding a wooden stick in its bill. And then, just like that, it scratched its back with the stick. This might not seem like a huge thing until you realize that the puffin is a small seabird, a back scratcher is a tool, and seabirds don’t use tools. Or rather, back in the day they didn’t use tools. Clearly, they do now. Is this a recent development? Or have they always been secretly able to wield all sorts of tools and merely resisted the opportunity to poke Gordon Ramsay in the eye with a stick because they knew the cameras were rolling? The world needs to know!

So what does the tool-using puffin mean?

So, what’s the big deal, then? Is this just an isolated incident, or is the world’s entire puffin population gearing to beat us all up with sticks because a certain element has hunted them for food? We don’t know, but Annette Fayet and her colleagues believe puffin tool use may be far more advanced than people realize. While science knows that certain birds like parrots or Egyptian vultures use rudimentary tools to acquire food, few scientists have looked into the comparatively small-brained seabirds as “prospective tool users.” As a result, there’s no telling how many of them can use tools, and with what proficiency — for instance, the Wales puffin may have used its scratch stick specifically to remove ticks, which seems pretty advanced. 

But wait, it gets weirder! According to behavioral ecologist Corine Logan, puffins may be just one of the untold numbers of species that have been using tools for ages while mankind has thoroughly failed to notice. In fact, she thinks that “so many creatures’ cognitive abilities remain undiscovered because detecting them takes so much time and energy.” Well, that’s something. Will stick-wielding puffins be followed by seagulls with switchblades? Lake ducks wielding Louisville Sluggers? Likely not. Still, right now, it’s probably safe to say that Gordon Ramsay might want to avoid sticking his face in a puffin nest in the immediate future.

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