Operation Nugget Liberation

It's well known that chimpanzees, birds, and many other "smart" animals make and use tools. What we currently know about animal tool behavior has recently been reviewed in a wonderful book by Robert Shumaker and his colleagues, and the examples they show from a wide range of animals will surely surprise you. Now, we can add another animal, in this case a clever beagle, to the long and growing list of toolmakers and users, which includes crocodiles.

I just saw a video that caught my attention because of the careful planning shown by a beagle in search of chicken nuggets in a toaster oven. This quest, dubbed "Operation Nugget Liberation", clearly shows this dog trying different strategies to get the food and then figuring out how to do it. The dog's adventure is described as follows:

Step 1: Move the chair into position using paw to push along kitchen floor.

Step 2: Leap onto chair and then onto counter, with an elegant one-two punch. Note: Be careful not to disturb any of the other countertop appliances.

Step 3: Make way past sink to toaster oven. Open oven with paw. Wait a minute. Is the oven on? You don't care. You want nuggets.

Step 4: Knock entire tray of food to ground. Eat, eat, eat.

Step 5: Practice "ashamed" face for when family forces you to watch video of your misdeeds.

In a previous essay called "Tool Use by a Dingo and a Dog" I wrote about a dingo using a similar strategy. Researchers wrote about Sterling, an 18 month-old male dingo, who, "After several unsuccessful attempts at jumping for the envelope, Sterling 'solved' the task by first moving and then jumping up onto a trestle table (1.2 m × 0.6 m × 0.73 m) which allowed him to gain the additional height necessary to reach the food item. To move the table, Sterling clamped his mouth onto the strut between the legs of the table. He then walked backwards, dragging the table approximately 2 m, until it appeared that either his back leg or tail touched the enclosure mesh. He then jumped onto the table, but as he was still at least a body-length away from the envelope, he had to span the gap between the table and the enclosure mesh by propping his front paws onto the mesh gradually moving them towards the envelope. At full stretch, he reached the envelope on his second attempt." You can read all about this discovery here. The video is well-worth watching.

I also wrote about a dog named Grendel who fashioned a marrow bone as a back scratcher. Grendel's human friend, Lenny Frieling, told me the following story. "It would have been about 1973 that Grendel made her first tool. Because of her short legs and long torso, she could not reach the center of her back to scratch. One day we gave her a bone which was likely sawn from a large leg bone, perhaps lamb, because it was quite hard. It was cylindrical, with parallel flat sides. About a week (at most) after we gave her the bone, we noticed that she had chewed it so that one side was still flat, and the other side had to raised ridges (shaped like a sine wave going around the outer rim of the bone). She would place the bone, flat side down, on the floor, and roll over onto the two raised ridges using the protrusions to scratch the center of her back. I was convinced that she had made a tool, but in my mind I thought that behavior had to be repeated to be scientifically significant. She had that first bone, as I recall it, for quite a while, maybe a year. It disappeared. We gave her another bone and within days, or a week, she had carved the second bone into a very similar shape, and used it for the same purpose. She had repeated the making of the tool."

The plural of anecdote is data

Some of the numerous comments accompanying the beagle's quest for chicken also mention various forms of tool manufacture and use by dogs. It's great to see more and more examples of tool use by various animals because these observations can form the basis for future non-invasive experiments that can be enriching for the animals being studied. Cleverness in tool manufacture and use is clearly widespread among diverse animals, as shown by the numerous examples in Dr. Shumaker's book, a wide variety of experiments, and observations by citizen scientists.

The teaser image can be seen here

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