Yet another trait we like to believe makes humans special seems to be not such a distinctly human trait after all: the use of tools. Other animals have been observed using tools in the past, and some South-American monkeys are said to have entered the stone age. But monkeys are some of our closest relatives. We’ll only start getting worried when they start mass-producing weapons of war. But it’s not just other primates. Octopuses, alligators, rats, ravens and even ants have been known to use tools. And now, for the first time, pigs have been observed using tools. And you already felt bad about eating pork chops.
We’ve known for a while that pigs are pretty smart. The stat usually quoted is that pigs are as smart as a 7-year-old human child. The problem with that has always been that we can see 7-year-olds doing things like throwing rocks and hitting each other with sticks —AKA using tools. But we’re not so different from our porcine friends. A recent study led by conservation ecologist Meredith Root-Bernstein and published in the journal Mammalian Biology describes “the first structured observations of unprompted instrumental object manipulation in a pig.”
Root-Bernstein noticed pigs using tools in 2015 during a chance observation at a zoo. She watched a Visayan warty pig named Priscilla use a piece of bark like a shovel to scoop dirt. Later she found that this behavior had never been described by biologists. In a Skype call to Vice, Root-Bernstein said:
“I just happened to be in the zoo at the right moment and observed the behavior. Of course, it was because I knew about animal behavior that I recognized what I was seeing, but otherwise it was totally serendipity.”
Root-Bernstein and colleagues observed other Visayan warty pigs in captivity and found that they all used tools as a means of nest-building. She also found that Priscilla may have taught her offspring how to copy her behavior, thus passing down the knowledge of tool use from generation to generation. She says the surprising thing isn’t that pigs use tools, but that it hasn’t been described before:
I do think it’s surprising that we haven’t seen, in scientific literature, domestic pigs using tools. All pigs are considered to be intelligent—they are social and they like to manipulate objects with their mouths—so those are all good conditions under which you might expect to see tool use being invented and passed around between individual pigs.”
Root-Bernstein and her colleagues were able to film Visayan warty pigs using tools multiple times throughout their study. But there’s another account of wild Visayan warty pigs using tools that may be even more surprising. Fernando “Dino” Gutierrez, president of the Philippine conservation group Talarak Foundation, Inc., says that Visayan warty pigs have been seen using rocks to test whether electric fences were live. He says:
“As soon as they push and the rocks make contact, they would wait for the clicking sound or absence thereof. Clicking means the wires are hot, and they will back off and not cross; no sounds mean it is safe to investigate what’s beyond the wire.”
That’s a level of cognition and resourcefulness that most 7-year-old humans certainly don’t have. Normally this is where I’d say “So think about that when you’re eating a holiday ham.” But no, instead I’ll say: when you’re eating your holiday ham, remember that they’re smart enough to do the same for you.