People take tool usage for granted, which is understandable considering the scientific estimation that we’ve been using them for roughly three million years. But animals using tools, that’s still a relatively rare occurrence, and almost unheard of in the case of the Suidae family of artiodactyl mammals, a.k.a. pigs. There is now, however, the first-ever video evidence of pigs using tools, which means they’re joining us, and a few other select creatures, at the tool-wielding table. Hopefully nothing offensive to the newcomers is being served.
Root-Bernstein, who’s currently a National Geographic Explorer and visiting researcher at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, told National Geographic that during her 2015 visit, she watched as a Visayan warty pig picked up a piece of bark and began digging with it. She subsequently searched for prior evidence of pigs using tools, but came up with bupkis. After realizing there was no prior recordings of pigs using tools, she decided to keep an eye on the Visayan warty pigs at the zoo over the next few months to see if she could capture the phenomenon again.
It wasn’t until the following spring that colleagues of Root-Bernstein were able to observe the behavior again, when they recorded three warty pigs building their nests—consisting of holes dug in mud and filled with leaves—in anticipation of the arrival of newly born piglets. Cut to now, a little over three years later, and the video recorded by those colleagues (which comes via Futurism), along with a paper published in the journal Mammalian Biology by Root-Bernstein et al. outlining the pigs’ tool usage, have been released to the public.
In the abstract for the paper, the authors note that digging with the pieces of bark is likely to be learned socially, with the digging skill being passed on via vertical transmission from one generation to another, specifically amongst mothers and daughters. The skill is also likely passed on via horizontal transmission, from females to males. Root-Bernstein told National Geographic that the pigs using bark to dig technically counts as tool usage because it demonstrates “The exertion of control over a freely manipulable external object (the tool) with the goal of (1) altering the physical properties of another object, substance, surface or medium … via a dynamic mechanical interaction, or (2) mediating the flow of information.”
The Visayan Warty pig is a critically endangered species that occupies islands in the Central Philippines and has the distinction of being the only hog to have the same hairstyle as an anime protagonist. pic.twitter.com/7Fll0lYALx
— Sam Sykes (@SamSykesSwears) August 5, 2019
As Root-Bernstein herself admits, there are a few grains of salt that need to be taken with this observation. For one, the warty pigs who used the bark tools were in a zoo, not out in the wild, which means the inventive behavior may be limited to captivity. The evidence of warty pigs using bark tools for digging, or any tools for that matter, is also severely limited because it’s only been observed in the population of warty pigs belonging to the zoo at which Root-Bernstein and her colleagues made their observation.
But Root-Bernstein doesn’t seem to be hung up on the limitations of the research. Instead, she seems to be focused on what the impacts of this discovery could have on people. This observation “brings us closer to animals,” Root-Bernstein told National Geographic, “and helps us realize [we’re] all connected.”
What do you think about this first-ever recording of pigs using tools? Which animals do you think we’ll observe using tools next? Dig up some opinions in the comments!
Feature image: Shukran888