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When it Comes to Tool Use, Scientists Say Kids and Apes Have a Similar Skill Set

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The human race likes to see itself as separate from the rest of earth's many species, but as researchers develop more thoughtful experiments, those barriers have a tendency to fall away. Scientists have long believed, for example, that tool use in humans must be learned from others. But according to a new study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society Bhuman toddlers and apes are in fact equally adept at figuring out how to use tools.

Tool use is a big deal in behavioral science because it represents a pretty sophisticated way of thinking. Many previous experiments on animal tool use have used a very people-centric approach, grading other animals on their ability to perform human tasks. These experiments are biased from the start, write the authors of the new study, because when those animals have failed to perform human-oriented skills they would never need in the wild, the researchers have concluded that they’re simply not as smart as we are. 

The new study set out to correct those mistakes. Rather than measuring an ape’s ability to act like a person, they measured human kids’ ability to act like apes—which makes a lot more sense, evolutionarily speaking. The researchers were curious to find out if toddlers were capable of discovering tool use on their own. They also wanted to know if tasks that are harder for apes are harder for people. 

To find out, they created the Great Ape Tool Test Battery (GATTeB), a list of 12 common tool-use behaviors in wild chimpanzees and orangutans. Items included using a twig to dig seeds out of fruit, cracking a nut with a rock, or picking the marrow out of bones with a small stick. 

“We chose great ape tasks for three reasons,” lead author Eva Reindl said in a press statement. “Firstly, they are unfamiliar to children. This ensures that children will have to invent the correct behavior instead of using socially acquired, previous knowledge. Second, they are ecologically relevant, and third, they allow us to make species comparisons with regard to the cognitive abilities involved.” 

Here’s where things get fun: The researchers devised human-kid equivalents of these behaviors, like using a stick to pull pom-poms out of a little box, cracking a plastic nut with a clay hammer to get at the prize inside, or picking a sticker out of a tube with a stick. They made each task into a game, with a sticker as a prize. ("Stickers represent a highly valuable and desirable good for most Western children throughout the preschool age—and are thus motivating for children," the researchers write in the paper.)

They brought in 50 kids 2–3.5 years old and put them to work. Earlier studies have suggested that an adult ape and a 2-year-old child have equivalent intelligence, but because some of the tests were tough, the researchers decided to include slightly older kids. 

Before the tests began, the kids got a warm-up play session where they learned that they were allowed to break, manipulate, and destroy the objects in front of them—a crucial element, since several of the tasks required breaking or poking holes in things. 

Each kid was then given four GATTeB-equivalent tasks to complete. “The idea was to provide children with the raw material necessary to solve the task,” co-author Claudio Tennie said in the press release. “We told children the goal of the task, for example to get the pom-poms out of the box, but we never mentioned using the tool to them. We would then investigate whether children spontaneously came up with the correct tool behavior on their own.”

And they did. Collectively, the kids solved 11 of the 12 tasks. Eighty percent of the time, they picked up the right tools for the job, even when they couldn’t figure out what to do with them. Without hints, lessons, or anyone to imitate, the kids invented tool use all on their own.

“While it is true that more sophisticated forms of human tool use indeed require social learning, we have identified a range of basic tool behaviors which seem not to,” Reindl continued in the press release. “Using great ape tasks, we could show that these roots of human tool culture are shared by great apes, including humans, and potentially also their last common ancestor.” 

This suggests, the authors write, that “humans are neither born with special physical cognition skills, nor that these skills have degraded due to our species’ long reliance of social learning in the tool-use domain."

So parents, give your kids some random objects to interact with and see what they come up with. 

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
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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