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Parrots Make Their Own Vitamins

With just a stray date pit, pebble and seashell, a group of parrots figured out how to make a nutritional supplement.

Several members of a captive population of greater vasa parrots are using tools to make their own calcium powder, according to a new study that reports the method was completely self-initiated.

The discovery not only represents a novel usage of tools among birds, but also is the first time that any non-human has been observed making a nutritional supplement to satisfy its own needs. The findings are reported in the journal Biology Letters.

It appears that one extremely smart, creative-thinking bird first devised the technique.

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"Without witnessing the first tool using event, it's difficult to know how this behavior started, but the social system of these birds, and the fact that they share tools, would certainly support a scenario where tool use was transmitted socially after observing one innovative individual," lead author Megan Lambert of the University of York's Department of Psychology told Discovery News.

Lambert, with colleagues Amanda Seed and Katie Slocombe, noticed the behavior while monitoring 10 greater vasa parrots, which are native to Madagascar but are housed together in an aviary at Lincolnshire Wildlife Park, U.K. The floor of their enclosure consists of soil, cockleshells, wood chips and pebbles.

The researchers noticed that several members of the population used pebbles to break the shells apart and then grind them into a fine powder, which they would lick and consume. When later fed dates, they would use the remaining date pits in a similar manner.

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Parrots are known to nibble on shells, particularly at a certain time of year, but they usually do this with their beaks. The scientists therefore suspect that the pebbles, date pits and crushing might mitigate their discomfort from beak scraping, or prevent rapid beak wear.

"Unlike mammals, birds cannot efficiently store calcium in the skeleton and so may still require an extra boost during the breeding season to assist with the formation of their eggshells, which are made almost entirely of calcium," Lambert explained.

She continued, "This is one possible explanation for why these birds were so interested in the shells just before the breeding season, but ultimately more research needs to be done to determine whether this regularly occurs before the breeding season in these birds."

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Greater vasa parrots are among the most social birds. They have a high degree of social tolerance, spending a lot of time being very close to each other with few signs of aggression. The researchers think such tolerance could promote learning.

A greater vasa parrot playing with a stick. | Megan Lambert

Like many birds, the parrots also appear to exhibit flexibility.

"Flexible tool use would suggest that, rather than performing a hardwired behavior, these birds are using more complex cognitive abilities to flexibly solve problems in their environment," Lambert said.

Alice Auersperg of the University of Vienna's Department of Cognitive Biology has also studied tool use among parrots. She told Discovery News that the cognitive abilities of greater vasa parrots remain largely unstudied. She said the birds seem "to show a propensity for complex combinatory object manipulations."

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"Such types of playful behaviors can be considered precursors for the ability to establish complex functional relationships between objects," Auersperg said.

"The type of tool use that was described (in the new paper) is interesting as it has not been systematically recorded in animals," she added. "It is yet unclear how the animals first accomplished this behavior and how it spreads throughout a group of animals. I hope to be able to hear more about this in the future."

Two greater vasa parrots.

Animal tool use is far more common than previously thought, with fish recently added to the animal tool wielder's list. Here, a green wrasse picks up a clam. The fish later uses a rock as an anvil to smash open the clam. Such underwater cleverness should come as no surprise, according to Culum Brown, director of advanced biology at Macquarie University. "Fish are always ignored when it comes to cognition," he told Discovery News. "That is largely due to our self-centered view of evolution. But even ignoring that bias, we would still seldom study fish because they are simply hard to observe." Added Brown, whose findings are outlined in the latest issue of the journal Fish and Fisheries, "I'm sure tool use is far more common in fish than we realize."

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Fish aren't the only underwater tool users. Dolphins break off sponges and wear them, but it's likely not a fashion statement. "We believe that the marine sponge acts as a kind of glove to protective their sensitive rostra," marine biologist Michael Krützen of the University of Zurich told Discovery News. "That probing (of the sea floor) might disturb fish that hide in the sand, which would then be easy targets for the dolphins."

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Brown believes that "many animals resort to tool use when they lack the physical capability to access a resource, nearly always food, without the specific aid of a tool." This photo shows a selection of sticks altered by chimpanzees at Kibale Forest National Park in Uganda to get at honey and other food.

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Animals may use tools for defense, as does this decorator (also sometimes called "dresser") crab. The crab possesses Velcro-like hooks on its shell that hold "accessories," which in this case are living coral polyps and sea anemones. The other creatures give the crab a bottom-of-the-sea look that helps to disguise it on the reefs where it lives.

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The closer animals are to our own species, the more their tool usage seems human-like. This adult female gorilla named Leah from Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in northern Congo, turned a big branch into a multi-purpose tool. She used it as a walking stick, for postural support, and to test both the substrate and the water depth. Leah proves three aspects of animal tool usage highlighted by Brown. "First, the animal has to be in an environment where suitable tools are available," he said. "Second, the animal has to have the physical and mental capacity to use the tool. Third, the physics of the environment make tool-use possible." For the latter, he points out that fish don't have hammers because swinging them underwater "is really hard work and not very effective."

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Tools don't always provide the fastest, easiest solution to problems. In the case of New Caledonian crows, for example, their use of sticks to dislodge wood-boring beetle grubs from rotting tree trunks requires a lot of time and practice. Why do crows even bother with the sticks then? Christian Rutz of the University of Oxford and colleagues investigated the benefits of this tool use by analyzing how different types of food contribute to individual crow diets. As it turns out, just a few beetle larvae pulled out by sticks can satisfy a crow's daily energy requirements. So all of the extra effort is worth it.

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Sometimes tools can aid in sudden life or death matters. This small octopus from East Timor was seen on a night dive hiding between a nutshell and a clamshell. When things got quiet, the octopus snuck out, carrying the shells. Sensing threats, it then clamped itself back between the portable hideout.

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One of the most unusual animal tools is a "kiss squeak toy" that orangutans construct out of leaves. Madeleine Hardus of the Behavioral Biology Group at the University of Utrecht told Discovery News that the resulting noise is hardly a love call. Instead, orangutans produce it when predators startle them, or they are otherwise disturbed. "As far as I and my colleagues know, no other primate emits kiss squeak sounds," Hardus said. "Male great apes can use their hands during the production of calls, such as buttress-drumming in chimpanzees, chest-beating in gorillas and snag-crashing in orangutans, but in these examples, calls are not modified; they're added with other acoustic elements. Only kiss squeaks are known to be modified."

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It may not be pretty, but mammal dung serves as a useful tool for burrowing owls. The owls collect the dung and spread it around the entrance to their homes, as seen here. Dung-consuming beetles find the bait irresistible. As the beetles are investigating the fragrant balls, the owl comes out for its crunchy bug dinner.

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Our human ancestors were using stone tools and eating meat from large mammals nearly a million years earlier than previously thought, according to a Nature study that pushed back both of these human activities to around 3.4 million years ago. The first known human ancestor tool-wielder and meat-lover was Australopithecus afarensis, according to the study. This species, whose most famous representative is the skeleton "Lucy," was slender, toothy and small-brained. "By pushing the date for tool use and meat-eating in our lineage back by around 1 million years, our finds show that tool use and meat-eating was not unique to (the genus) Homo," co-author Zeresenay Alemseged told Discovery News. "Also, by showing that A. afarensis was involved in these activities, we showed that you do not need a large brain to do this," added Alemseged, director of the Department of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences. Brown agrees that braininess may not always explain how much or little certain species use tools. "Are there physical and or ecological constraints on tool use?" he said. "Hopefully if we do this we can get away from the notion that 'humans use tools so tool-users must be smart like humans.' That idea seems to be leading us in circles."

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