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In a First, Scientists Film a Puffin Scratching Itself With a Stick

Behold the first evidence of tool use in seabirds

Researchers now have video evidence that Atlantic puffins can use sticks as tools to scratch their backs. (Public domain)
smithsonianmag.com

What’s a puffin to do with an itchy back and a short little beak? Grab a stick, a new study suggests.

For the first time, a team of researchers has documented the seabirds using tools, as shown in a video of a puffin rubbing at its feathers with a small twig, as Ben Guarino reports for the Washington Post. Though humans have been wielding objects external to their bodies for practical purposes for millions of years, fewer than one percent of Earth’s other species do the same. The new study, published yesterday in the journal PNAS, appears to grant puffins membership to this exclusive club of tool-savvy animals.

Only two puffins have been observed exhibiting the stick-scratching behavior so far though—and just one was captured on camera. But the video makes them the first known tool-using seabirds, and the only example of a bird scratching itself with a tool in the wild, reports Jonathan Lambert for Science News.

University of Oxford ecologist Annette L. Fayet spotted the first puffin in 2014 on a remote island off the coast of Wales. Though she quickly scrawled a note about the resourceful seabird, which had itched its back with a stick while bobbing in the seawater beneath a cliff, Fayet didn’t snap any photographic evidence. Then, four years later, one of Fayet’s motion-sensor cameras on Grimsey Island in Iceland—more than 1,000 miles away—captured another puffin giving its chest feathers the same treatment.

Several other species of birds use tools. Clever crows have been seen hooking grubs with twigs; vultures are known to crack open ostrich eggs with rocks. While seabirds have mostly been written off as tool users, in part because of their smaller brains, the new study shows they’re just as capable as their land-based cousins, Lambert reports.

What’s more, the puffins appear to be indulging in “body care,” a phenomenon that’s especially rare in wild birds. Some will slather their bodies in insects, Guarino reports, perhaps as a chemical defense against parasites or fungi. Back scratching could also promote hygiene and health, perhaps as a way to ward off ticks, which often run rampant on Icelandic islands in the summer, study author Dora Biro, an animal behaviorist at the University of Oxford, tells Guarino. Perhaps using a tool to do it bumps the behavior up a notch.

Though the findings mark a first in scientific literature, they don’t surprise behavioral ecologist Corina Logan of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, who wasn’t involved in the study. In an interview with Lambert, she points out that plenty of the quirks and clever behaviors that exist in the animal kingdom have yet to be uncovered. Detecting them, she says, takes a great deal of time and energy.

For now, this once-itchy puffin has given researchers plenty to squawk about. Though don’t expect the birds themselves to fuss: They’re apparently silent at sea. Speak softly, puffins, and carry an itch stick.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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