Don't be fooled by their cute beaks and innocent waddle – puffins may be smarter than they first let on.
Researchers have captured first-of-a-kind footage of puffins using small twigs to scratch their backs and ruffle their chests, marking the first time a seabird has ever been documented using a tool.
Annette Fayet, a zoologist from the University of Oxford in the UK, first witnessed this behavior in June 2012 while observing Atlantic puffins living on Skomer Island off the coast of Wales, as reported in the journal PNAS.
This impressive feat was not a one-off, either. In July 2018, Fayet and her team managed to capture the same behavior on video using motion-activated cameras deployed near puffin nests on Grimsey Island in Iceland.
Although it’s not clear why the puffins indulge in this behavior, the team speculates it’s either to dislodge ticks or to simply relieve an itch.
"Using sticks is common across tool-using taxa, but mostly in a foraging context to extract food from a cavity," the team explain in their paper. "Puffins only catch prey underwater, and they were not interacting with other puffins or probing objects with the stick.
"As such, they were most likely engaged in body care."
Once thought to be a skill possessed only by humans, tool use has since been documented in a wide array of animal species. It’s most often associated with our primate cousins such as gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees, but it’s also been seen in pigs, dolphins, fish, and a long list of other unexpected species, like ants. Many species of monkeys and chimpanzees have entered the stone age, some thousands of years ago. Crows, parrots, and certain other species of birds are known to be especially skilled when it comes to tool use. Australian birds of prey have harnessed the use of fire, and a 2018 study even found New Caledonian crows can craft their own tools by combining several different independent parts.
Until now, seabirds were not known to use tools, nor were they typically associated with displays of intelligence. However, thanks to the itching efforts of these puffins, they can join the select club of tool users.
“As such, seabirds’ cognitive capacities may have been considerably underestimated,” the study authors write. “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.”