These Parrots Are the First Animals to Use Grinding Tools

It’s no secret that parrots are smart. Aside from mimicking human speech, they display some impressive problem-solving abilities. But unlike other brainy birds such as crows, they’re not regular tool users. Out of 300-plus parrot species, only a handful have been known to use tools (and even some of those have only showed that skill in lab settings).

Now, a new study suggests that the greater vasa parrot (Coracopsis vasa) can be added to that short list. At a wildlife park in the UK, researchers discovered that a group of these birds were regularly using seashells and other objects to improvise a sort of mortar and pestle. These are the first observations of a nonhuman using grinding tools.

Psychologist Megan Lambert and her colleagues were at the Lincolnshire Wildlife Park studying the parrots’ behavior when they noticed the birds paid a lot of attention to the seashells scattered around the floor of their enclosure. When they got a closer look, they saw that some of the parrots were grinding pebbles against the shells to create a powder, which they then ate. The birds put the pits from dates their keepers fed them to the same use.

The researchers saw five of the park’s 10 parrots doing this, and also found that they shared their tools with each other. Two of the male parrots let a female borrow their pebbles and pits and, in one case, actively offered them to her. Transfers like this are rare among tool-using animals.

Lambert and her team kept track of the parrots’ tool use from March to October 2013, and found that it peaked in the spring, with the birds taking up their makeshift grinders as often as twice an hour in early April, and dropped off later in the year. The parrots’ seasonal use of the tools may be because they breed in March and April, and need the powder from the calcium-rich seashells to produce their eggs.

“While other species are known to ingest seashells as calcium supplements, this birds’ method for doing so appears to be entirely unique,” the researchers write in their paper. If shell grinding is a way to get a nutritional boost for egg laying, then it’s odd that four out of the five tool users were male. Lambert suspects that this has to do with a quirk of the parrots’ social lives. During courtship and mating, male vasa parrots feed their female partners by regurgitating food into their mouths, in which case the females would benefit indirectly from the males’ grinding.

The researchers admit that they have more questions than answers after this initial observation. First, why would the parrots complicate things by using a tool to grind the shells instead their beaks? It’s possible that scraping the shells with their beaks is simply uncomfortable for the birds, or they might be able absorb more calcium from the fine shell powder than they do from larger chunks or flakes of shell.

The team also wants to do more work to figure out if vasa parrots use their grinding tools in the wild, or if the behavior is unique to the captive group at Lincolnshire and arose because they don’t have to worry about predators or finding food and have a lot of time on their hands (or wings). Still other experiments are needed to see if these parrots innately know how to use the tools, or picked the skill up from a member of the group who first figured it out through trial and error.

For now, tool use is another feather in the cap of an already interesting bird. Vasas, which are native to Madagascar, are curious, playful, and more sociable than most parrots. During their study, the researchers watched as one bird threaded a twig through the links of a chain. Toying with objects like this, the team says, could be a precursor to more advanced problem solving and tool use.

Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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Big Questions
Why Do Dogs Love to Dig?
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Dog owners with green thumbs beware: It's likely just a matter of time before Fido turns your azalea bed into a graveyard of forgotten chew toys. When dogs aren't digging up your prized garden, they can be found digging elsewhere in your yard, at the beach, and even between your couch cushions at home. But what exactly is behind your dog's drive to turn every soft surface he or she sees into an excavation site?

According to Dr. Emma Grigg, an animal behaviorist and co-author of The Science Behind a Happy Dog, this behavior is completely normal. "When people say 'why do dogs dig,' the first thing that always comes to mind is 'well, because they're dogs,'" she tells Mental Floss. The instinct first appeared in dogs' wolf ancestors, then it was amplified in certain breeds through artificial selection. That's why dogs that were bred to hunt rodents, like beagles and terriers, are especially compelled to dig in places where such animals might make their homes.

But this tendency isn't limited to just a few specific breeds. No matter their original roles, dogs of all breeds have been known to kick up some dirt on occasion. Beyond predatory urges, Dr. Grigg says there are two main reasons a dog may want to dig. The first is to cool off on a hot day. When stuck on an open lawn with little to no shade, unearthing a fresh layer of dirt untouched by the sun is a quick way to beat the heat.

The second reason is to stash away goodies. Imagine your dog gets bored with chewing his favorite bone but knows he wants to come back for it later. Instead of leaving it out in the open where anyone can snatch it up, he decides to bury it in a secret place where only he'll be able to find it. Whether or not he'll actually go back for it is a different story. "There's a disconnect with modern dogs: They know the burying part but they don't always know to dig it up," Dr. Grigg says.

Because digging is part of a dog's DNA, punishing your pet for doing so isn't super effective. But that doesn't mean you should stand idly by as your yard gets turned inside-out. When faced with this behavior in your own dog, one option is to redirect it. This can mean allowing him to dig in a designated corner of the yard while keeping other parts off-limits, or setting up a raised flowerbed or sandbox especially to satisfy that urge. "You can get him interested in the area by burying a couple bones or some interesting things in there for him to dig," Dr. Grigg says. "I like the idea of buried treasure."

If your dog's motive for digging is more destructive than practical, he may have an energy problem. Dogs require a certain amount of stimulation each day, and when their humans don't provide it for them they find their own ways to occupy themselves. Sometimes it's by chewing up shoes, toppling trash cans, or digging ditches the perfect size for twisting ankles. Fortunately, this is nothing more walks and playtime can't improve.

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