Puffins use ‘tools’ to scratch, groom themselves and dislodge ticks

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Puffins use wooden sticks as tools to scratch, groom themselves and possibly dislodge ticks — suggesting that the seabirds may be smarter than was thought.

Tool use is rare behaviour for animals — an activity largely confined to primates and perching birds when engaging in complex, often feeding-related, tasks.

However, zoologists led from the University of Oxford have reported two sightings of puffin tool-use, one from Iceland and the other from Pembrokeshire, Wales.

In their study, zoologist Annette Fayet of the University of Oxford and colleagues documented two instances in which puffins were observed using sticks as tools for grooming purposes.

In the first observation, a puffin on the island of Skomer off of Wales’ Pembrokeshire coast was seen scratching its back using a wooden stick, which it held in its bill, during June 2014. 

The researchers also recorded video of tool use by a puffin on Grimsey — an island off of the north of Iceland — in the July of 2018.

In the footage, the small bird can be seen picking up a wooden stick from the ground in its beak and subsequently using such to scratch its chest.

Dr Fayet and colleagues believe that the tool-wielding puffins were likely engaging in some form of grooming practice — either using the stick to scratch or to dislodge parasites like ticks.

‘The case of our puffins may reflect a specific ecological need which only occurs in some circumstances,’ the researchers wrote in their paper.

‘For example, puffins suffer from seabird ticks, Ixodes uriae, which were particularly abundant on Grimsey Island in the summer of 2018.’

‘The stick may have helped with scratching or dislodging them, perhaps more effectively than the beak.’

The findings suggest that the brainpower of puffins and other seabirds may need to be reassessed, the authors argue.

‘Seabirds’ relative brain size is comparatively small and they are not generally described as possessing sophisticated cognitive abilities,’ they wrote.

Despite this, the authors note that puffins feed in unpredictable environments — an existence that likely calls for the integrations of various sources of physical and social information to make complex decisions. 

‘Solving such problems requires behavioural flexibility and skills in multiple domains including learning, memory, and planning,’ the team wrote — all indicators of a higher level of cognitive capacity.

‘The fact that to date the only other birds seen scratching with a stick are parrots, prolific tool users and problem solvers, supports this hypothesis,’ they concluded.

The full findings of the study were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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