5 Animals Who Taught Themselves Eerily Human Skills
It's all fun and games when an animal learns to ride a unicycle or puts on people clothes, but as we've previously discussed, there's a fine line between "adorable" and "creepy," one that gets crossed when our furry friends get too smart. For instance, monkeys wearing bow ties are always welcome, but as soon as they're hunting with spears and cooking hamburgers, we start worrying about how difficult it will be to learn their language once they take over the world.
Orangutans Are Learning to Spearfish
Orangutans are the paradoxically-smaller-yet-10-times-stronger cousins of human beings. We're perfectly fine with making movies about them playing baseball or checking into hotels, but if one decides to tear your head off, there isn't a whole lot you can do except make some funny faces and hope that derails its train of thought. Unless, of course, you have a weapon -- the primary advantage we have over orangutans is that we can make awesome tools that we can use to stab or shoot them out of murdering range. You're never going to see an orangutan with a-
In 2008, workers at an animal sanctuary on the island of Kaja in Borneo noticed the apes hanging from tree branches and attempting to spearfish with harpoons, just like the locals do. In other words, the orangutans saw us using weapons to cause harm to other species and quickly realized how powerful and awesome that makes you feel. Look at that majestic bastard up there. He even seems proficient, dangling precariously above water that we assume is full of deadly piranhas, steadying himself for a lethal strike of laser-like precision.
Luckily for human civilization, physical evolution has not yet caught up with the orangutans' desire, and their lack of dexterity makes it almost impossible for them to actually spear any fish. But they are able to use the sticks to spear fruit that's fallen from the trees to float tauntingly out of reach in the river, because before you learn to walk, you have to learn to crawl.
"Walk" and "crawl" being polite euphemisms for "conquer humanity" and "it'll happen any day now."
That said, the orangutans have figured out how to use the spears to steal fish out of the natives' fishing nets, which means they have already discovered the primary reason humans developed tools -- to fuck with other people.
Dolphins Use Sponges as Face Masks
Bottlenose dolphins are already seen as fairly intelligent (albeit completely sociopathic) creatures of the sea. A world in which dolphins got smarter would be tantamount to the first half hour of Independence Day where everyone is watching the alien motherships hover menacingly around, waiting to see what they're going to do. Like if, one day, dolphins were clearly seen wearing clothing.
Brown with gray is a little last season, but there's only so much you can expect from a cetacean.
Those aren't tumors on their snouts -- they're sponges. And they're wearing them for a reason.
Bottlenose dolphins typically find food by scouring the ocean floor with their noses, sniffing around for whatever's edible. However, problems arise when the dolphins bump their noses into something decidedly inedible that then proceeds to bite and/or sting the ever-loving shit out of them. Perhaps the worst offender is the stonefish, an ugly bottom dweller that packs heat in the form of venomous spines.
"I am beautiful, no matter what they say. Words can't bring me down."
Most dolphins suck it up and move on, presumably muttering squeaky curses under their breath, but one group of dolphins in the Shark Bay region of Australia are fed up with getting attacked every time they go out to eat (in the human world, this is known as "going to Denny's"). Their solution: They break off big pieces of sea sponges and wear them on their faces like plague masks. This allows the dolphins to root around the ocean floor for food in peace, safe from the stonefish's annoying sting.
Both literal and metaphorical stings; stonefish are notoriously catty about fashion.
Researchers first noticed the dolphins using this problem-solving facial accessory in 2005, and after some quick bloodwork, they figured out that the very first sponge-using dolphin set the trend about 180 years ago. Dubbed "Sponging Eve" (which is a search result that is almost certainly blocked on your work computer), this Patient Zero dolphin figured out that sponges made dinnertime far less of a screamingly painful affair, and like any respectable shithead (see: "dolphins are jerks," above), it absolutely couldn't wait to tell all the other dolphins how smart it was. Now, about half of all the bottlenose dolphins in the Shark Bay area wear sponges on their faces (the other half wear knockoff sponges they bought from a guy at the bus stop).
Not ones to let fashion get stale, these same dolphins will also use giant conch shells as fish traps, because dolphins have apparently gotten so intelligent, they've discovered how to be lazy. Their entire physiology is designed to catch fish, but they'd rather drop a crab trap in the ocean so they can go drink some beer and check on it later.
Japanese Monkeys Season Their Food and Have Snowball Fights
Humans are pretty much the only species that eats food for taste rather than sustenance. Most other animals cram whatever isn't actively trying to kill them into their mouths -- "flavor" ranks well below "edible" and "within reach" as far as considerations they make when deciding what to have for dinner. One tribe of Japanese macaque monkeys, however, isn't interested in merely stuffing nutrition down their throats so they can go on with their day -- they want to savor their motherfucking potatoes, so they put salt on them.
It all began in 1953, when researchers started throwing sweet potatoes toward a tribe of macaques in an effort to lure them out for further study, because lobbing starch at indigenous species is apparently a recommended tactic in the scientific community. Since the monkeys now found themselves knee-deep in free food, they had no reason to hunt, which suddenly freed up a lot of their daily schedule.
With her newfound leisure time, one monkey, whom the researchers named Imo, started experimenting with washing her food in salty water, as opposed to simply brushing the sand off her potatoes like the other monkeys did. In the process, she discovered that dipping the potatoes in the water left them covered in salt (a process known as "Americanizing") and far tastier than the raw hunks of bullshit they had been chewing on. She relayed this fantastic breakthrough to her fellow monkeys, presumably through a protracted series of excited shrieks and frantic gestures, and soon all of the monkeys were salting their potatoes.
When they figure out the mystery of cool ranch power, mankind will finally have a peer.
Imo and her tribe aren't the only macaques to dedicate their spare time to eerily human activities. For example, here is a bunch of them playing with snowballs, which serves no other purpose than to delight absolutely everyone who sees it:
That's how creative intelligence begins: by figuring out ways to entertain yourself when you are bored. Pretty soon you'll be sharing a cab with a macaque while you're both on your way to the office. Until then, watch them joyously smash chunks of frozen water into each other's faces.
Though they have yet to learn that a snowball to the ear is never OK.
Ants Count Their Steps When Traveling
Scientists had long wondered how ants are able to so efficiently find their way home, considering they barely have brains and most anthills look exactly the same, like suburbs in an Eastern bloc nation. Some thought that ants rely on visual cues, but since blindfolded ants could navigate just as readily as those who didn't have adorably tiny handkerchiefs tied across their eyes, that theory died fast.
But a few years ago, researchers decided to test another theory: that ants can count via an internal pedometer that records the number of steps it takes to make it to a specific destination. Much like how blind people will memorize the layout of a house by remembering how many steps it takes to get from one room to another, ants keep track of how many steps they took to get from their dark, writhing larval lair to your potato salad.
The number is always more than the number of fucks they give about ruining your picnic.
Scientists tested this theory in perhaps the most dickish manner possible. They first trained desert ants to walk in a straight line by placing food 30 feet away from them. After they removed the food, the ants would still walk in the same perfectly straight line they always did, but upon realizing that they'd been had, they would begin to wander aimlessly around, looking for candy wrappers and/or dead animals (ants aren't picky).
While this proved that the ants knew where the food was supposed to be, it still wasn't enough to conclude that they were counting their steps to get there. So the researchers grabbed some of the ants and chopped a part off each of their legs, because science, and sent them to try and find the food. The amputee ants walked in the same straight line, but stopped well short of the food, even though there was nothing for them to eat but cruel, mocking dirt. Because their strides were now shorter (by virtue of having their legs cut in half), the same number of steps they'd taken before didn't carry them the full distance to the food. But they stopped as soon as they reached that specific step count (it is also entirely possible that the ants, despondent over having both their food and their legs taken away from them, simply didn't want to play anymore).
Of course, to make sure, they had to try it the other way:
The stilts were just to make Stumps feel even worse about himself. Any resulting research was purely coincidental.
Yes, that is an ant wearing stilts. The researchers, wanting to prove that their "shortened stride" theory about the amputee ants was true, gave some of the other ants stilts to see if a longer stride would cause them to overshoot the food. Sure enough, the stilt-wearing ants walked right past their food and only stopped once they hit the preordained number of steps, at which point they presumably began juggling and riding unicycles.
Getting those on there could not have been easy
Kanzi the Chimp Can Cook His Own Food
Never mind technology, speech, and gunpowder -- the real reason humans are the dominant species on the planet is because we're the only ones who have figured out that cooking our food is a fantastic way to make mealtime both more delicious and less riddled with infectious bacteria.
But as it turns out, we're not alone in the kitchen after all. Kanzi, a bonobo (a type of chimpanzee), cooks his own food over a campfire that he builds himself. We're not talking about some rinky-dink pile of sticks he lucked into assembling during a random tantrum of throwing shit around that happened to get set ablaze -- he carefully packs the wood together like an Eagle Scout.
A scout still working on his Bipedal Movement merit badge.
He even lights the fire himself, because few things are more inspiring than a half-ton great ape with a box of matches:
Kanzi cooks his food thoroughly enough to meet health code standards, and he's not just grilling moldy bananas and dirt pancakes -- Kanzi cooks actual food. He roasts marshmallows on a stick and even flips hamburgers, an activity generally reserved for medieval literature majors.
Based on that expression, he also appears to be working on the deep philosophical meaning of marshmallows.
Look at how intently he's staring at that fluff. Nobody on the planet loves cooking dessert more than this chimp. While he may not toast all four sides of the marshmallow every time, that's still miles ahead of what literally every other non-human creature has ever accomplished.
Next up to learn is portion control.
What's even more incredible is that nobody sat Kanzi down and taught him how to cook -- the whole thing was his idea. As a baby, Kanzi really liked Quest for Fire, a film about humans discovering fire that features Ron Perlman, who looks like a monkey. According to his handler, Kanzi watched the movie "hundreds of times," and eventually decided he wanted to make fire of his very own, a pursuit his handlers nurtured, because there can be no possible downside to allowing an ape to build a fire.
Kanzi has already started teaching his son Teco how to cook with fire, and presumably the fire-building technique will continue to be passed down to future generations of bonobos. Eventually, they'll join forces with the potato-salting macaques and the spear-hunting orangutans to open a restaurant that will probably have some difficulty avoiding health code violations.