We've all heard dogs cry or seen monkeys smile and laugh, but there are some skills we thought no other animals had... most of the time, we were wrong. From tools to fire, from clothes to food seasoning, here are some animals which display "human" characteristics.
Orangutans and weapons
Image courtesy of Eric Kilby
One thing we knew for certain differentiated us from some of our primate cousins is our use of tools - specifically weapons. They may be stronger and faster than us, they may be more violent and aggressive, but no animal can beat our ingenuity in creating weapons to hunt or fight other animals. Right?
In 2008, some orangutans were spotted spearfishing in Borneo. Undoubtedly copied from local fishermen's techniques, orangutans were seen hanging from branches and launching harpoon-like branches into the water. Though they lack the skills and dexterity to harpoon any live fish, they have been able to use these tools to catch fallen, floating fruit... and steal fish right out of the locals' nets!
Japanese macaques and food seasoning
Image courtesy of Richard Fisher
Animals usually see food as a means to survival, rather than as entertainment or as an enjoyable task in itself. Food choice is usually based on ease of access and edibility rather than flavour or preference - except for this one tribe of Japanese macaques.
As researchers lured these wild monkeys out with food to study and observe them, they no longer had to hunt as much, freeing up a significant amount of time. With time comes experimenting, and with their newfound food source, some monkeys began experimenting with their food. One female started washing and dipping her potatoes in salty water rather than simply brushing them, apparently found the taste much improved and, soon enough, her mother and then most of the tribe started dipping their potatoes in the ocean to add salt and flavour to them.
Dolphins and protection masks
Image courtesy of Pete Markham
We all know that dolphins are pretty clever creatures - probably even more so than chimpanzees - but you may not know that some have been seen using sea sponges as protective face masks... and they have been doing so for over 100 years (though researchers only noticed this in 2005, because beyond being clever, dolphins are also apparently sneaky).
In order to find food, dolphins poke around the sea floor with their noses, trying to find something edible. They will occasionally bump into something not edible, such as the venomous stonefish, and can get hurt - usually bitten or stung - but these sea sponges they so glamorously wear on their noses protect them from that.
About half of the dolphins in the Shark Bay region of Australia have been seen with these accessories. The dolphins using these tools have different diets to others in the same area, as they have been able to exploit a new food environment. That makes this tool use akin to environmental engineering, which is a skill found in very few species.
Bonobos and food cooking
Image courtesy of Jeroen Kransen
We know, we've cycled back to apes and food, but this one is as human as it gets. Us humans are (or rather were) the only species to cook our food. Not only has it allowed us to contract fewer diseases and infections, it is also thought to have dramatically reduced the energy demands of our gut, allowing our brains to develop the way they have. Next time you walk into your kitchen, give your stove and oven a thankful nod.
A bonobo called Kanzi has been observed to create a stack of firewood, start a fire (admittedly with matches he probably hasn't made himself), and cook food (again, marshmallows and burgers, which have admittedly been given to him by his human handlers). Despite these helpful additions by humans, there is one thing Kanzi has done all by himself, and that's learn how to do this.
Though human handlers have provided him with some tools and regular viewings of the movie Quest for fire, Kanzi learned how to light the fire and cook the food all by himself, and is teaching his son Teco to do it too. Watch him in action here.
These are only four examples out of many more discovered by scientists. Many skills and traits previously thought to be exclusively human have been found in nature - from crows' extraordinary abilities to use tools to spiders deceiving potential mates by lying - which are causing us to rethink exactly how we evolved and what makes us so special... if anything at all.
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