Setting His Own Dinner Table: Spontaneous Tool Use by a Dingo

The name tags kept disappearing, and the staff at Melbourne’s Dingo Discovery and Research Centre was mystified. After romping around the grounds of the dingo sanctuary, Sterling, an 18 month old sub adult male, and his two canine companions spent time in an indoor enclosure that had a name tag posted on the outside of the steel mesh wall. The tag was positioned 1.7 meters above the ground, well out of dingo-reach. Still, it kept vanishing.

As reported in a paper published online last week in Behavioural Processes,1 the caretakers decided that it was time solve the mystery. First, they hung a small plastic envelope filled with food near the name tag and watched to see what the dingoes would do. The dingoes were having none of that, however – as long as observers were around, the dingoes studiously ignored both the name tag and the envelope of food. Since the direct approach clearly wouldn’t work, the staff resorted to sneakiness, rigging up a video camera and then leaving the dingoes to their own devices.

Success! When the staff returned to the enclosure, they found that the food was gone and, more importantly, that the videotape reflected perhaps the first documented instance of tool use by a member of the Canid family. As described in the Behavioural Processes paper:

Big deal, Lassie; when Timmy fell down *my* well, I hoisted him out using a system of pulleys. (Sterling at Dingo Discovery and Research Centre, photo by Dingo Lyn)

[A]fter several unsuccessful attempts at jumping for the envelope, Sterling “solved” the task by first moving and then jumping up onto a trestle table (1.2 m × 0.6 m × 0.73 m) which allowed him to gain the additional height necessary to reach the food item. To move the table, Sterling clamped his mouth onto the strut between the legs of the table. He then walked backwards, dragging the table approximately 2 m, until it appeared that either his back leg or tail touched the enclosure mesh. He then jumped onto the table, but as he was still at least a body-length away from the envelope, he had to span the gap between the table and the enclosure mesh by propping his front paws onto the mesh gradually moving them towards the envelope. At full stretch, he reached the envelope on his second attempt.

While this account of Sterling’s actions may sound impressive, it’s even more striking when seen on video:

Bradley Smith of the University of South Australia and his colleagues noted in their paper that Sterling’s behavior appeared to be spontaneous – he had never been trained or encouraged to position the table in order to reach food (or name tags) – but they cautioned that they had to rely on information provided by the sanctuary’s staff regarding Sterling’s (lack of) relevant training in the past.

No problem, just bring me a socket wrench, a crow bar and three sticks of gum... (Sterling at Dingo Discovery and Research Centre, photo by Dingo Lyn)

Sterling, for his part, was no one-hit wonder. According to sanctuary staff, from an early age Sterling was adept at manipulating his environment to serve his purposes. For example, during one breeding season he used his front paws to roll a barrel to a wall, jumped up on the barrel, scrambled over the wall, and approached a female dingo in another area of the sanctuary. Also, the staff and research team later videotaped separate occasions in which Sterling used his mouth to drag a plastic dog kennel to differing locations around his enclosure, allowing him to stand on the kennel and peer over walls into neighboring dingo enclosures.

Thus, while the researchers couldn’t exclude the possibility that Sterling’s problem-solving abilities were the result of observational learning or that they had somehow been reinforced when he was younger, they rightly recognized that he appeared to be engaging in “high order behaviour” in using tools within his environment to solve complex problems. (Indeed, on the face of it, Sterling’s problem-solving is quite very reminiscent of Kandula the elephant’s insightful use of a box within his yard to solve an out-of-reach food challenge.)

So, now that you know what canines are capable of, please feel free to ask your dog Barkley when he’s going to get around to assembling that futon you bought at Ikea. No more excuses.

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ResearchBlogging.org1Smith, B., Appleby, R., & Litchfield, C. (2011). Spontaneous tool-use: An observation of a dingo (Canis dingo) using a table to access an out-of-reach food reward Behavioural Processes DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2011.11.004.

2As we’ve noted in previous posts (see, for example, the post on the poison rat and the tuskfish tool post), scientific authorities have defined the concept of “tool use” in various ways. In the Beck and Shumaker treatise discussed in the poison rat post, the authors describe a couple of anecdotal instances that may qualify as canid tool use under their broad definition, including an account of a wolf mother who used meat as a “baiting” and “enticing” tool to distract her young pup. Fox, M. (1971). Possible Examples of High-Order Behavior in Wolves Journal of Mammalogy, 52 (3) DOI: 10.2307/1378613.

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The Orange-Dotted Tuskfish Strikes Back: Movie Shows New Species of Fish Using Tool

AnimalWise Update

Recently, the blackspot tuskfish (Choerodon schoenleinii) became a media sensation when it was captured in photos using a rock as tool to open a clam. Apparently not happy with the print media attention afforded to its relative, the orange-dotted tuskfish (Choerodon anchoago) has taken the behavior to the movies, digging up a clam with its pectoral fin, swimming about five meters with it, and then crushing it open using a rock as an anvil:

As reported in the latest issue of Coral Reefs, a diver off the coast of Palau observed the orange-dotted tuskfish using a rock as a tool on three separate occasions, capturing the above footage on the final instance. The paper notes that three separate genera of wrasses (the Choerodon that have been in the news lately, as well as the Halichoeres and Thalassoma) have now been seen using similar sideways head movements to slam bivalves against rock anvils, suggesting that this may be a “deep-seated behavioral trait” in wrasses and, potentially, other groups of fishes.

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ResearchBlogging.orgBernardi, G. (2011). The use of tools by wrasses (Labridae) Coral Reefs DOI: 10.1007/s00338-011-0823-6

Rise of the Planet of the Ants

These days, we’ve been hearing quite a bit about a future in which humans find their dominion over the planet suddenly challenged by a group of super intelligent apes. This may make for an exciting Hollywood movie plot and some stunning visual effects, but I wonder whether we really need to look to humanoid science fiction in order to feel a shiver of doubt regarding our supremacy as a species.

Maybe all we need to do is to look at the world the way it is, a world that could well be called … The Planet of the Ants!

So, why is it that we should feel just a wee bit threatened by these small six-legged colonizers? Here are just a few reasons.

Quadrillions of Ants

Burning Man seems more crowded every year, doesn't it? (photo credit: Mehmet Karatay)

Like us, ants thrive just about anywhere, with the exception of Antarctica and a few isolated islands. Moreover, while there are approximately seven billion of us on the planet, conservative estimates put the number of ants at between one and ten quadrillion.1 That’s between 150,000 and 1,500,000 ants for each and every one of us. At the higher figure, this means that, if you were to put all the world’s ants onto a giant scale, they would weigh about as much as all of the humans on the planet put together.2 In fact, on average, it has been estimated that ants make up 15–20% of the terrestrial animal biomass on Earth (and more than 25% of the animal biomass in tropical regions).3

Our tendency as humans is to unquestioningly assume that we are far and away the most successful species that has ever been. If we take a step back, though, and simply consider the above numbers and the possibility that an animal’s success is most properly measured by the degree to which it has been able to thrive in various environments, perhaps we should already be feeling a pang of doubt about how incontestable our supremacy really is.

Ants Teach

While many animals are able to learn through imitation, ants are the only non-mammal known to engage in interactive teaching.4 In at least one species of ant, knowledgeable workers actively teach inexperienced nest mates where to find food through a process known as “tandem running,” in which the lead worker ant recruits an inexpert follower, and then makes sure that the follower stays on track, slowing down when it lags and speeding up when it gets too close.

Ants Learn

Ants are also able to engage in so-called latent learning, whereby they memorize information that they cannot use at once, but that may be useful later on – a behavior that’s been labeled as “planning.”5 Specifically, ants have been shown to be able to reconnoiter potential new living spaces, retaining information about relative desirability and tailoring their choices based on how urgently the need to move is.

Ants Can Learn to Navigate Mazes

Ants can be trained to remember multiple visual patterns presented in a fixed sequence, enabling them to navigate mazes.6 Ok, I’m not sure how exactly this leads to world domination, but it is definitely pretty cool.

Ants Practice Agriculture

Approximately 50 million years ago (and, accordingly, approximately 49+ million years before Homo Sapiens first arose as a species), ants began engaging in agriculture.7 Today, different species of leafcutter ants have adopted a purely agrarian lifestyle, feeding exclusively on gardens of fungus that they actively weed and cultivate, feed with fresh-cut leaves, and keep free from parasites and other pests.8 Here’s a video of some fungus farming ants:

Ants Engage in Animal Husbandry

Some ants raise aphids and feed on the sugary honeydew the aphids secrete when “milked” by the ants’ antennae. The ants are careful with their herds, keeping predators and parasites away, moving the aphids from one feeding location to another, and often bringing the aphids with them when they migrate.9 Here’s a video of ants tending to their aphids:

Ants Sometimes Enslave Other Ants

Certain types of ants are incorrigible slave-makers, raiding other colonies of ants and making captured slaves perform all routine tasks for their masters, including brood care, foraging, and even feeding slave-maker workers who are unable to feed themselves.10 Obviously, this isn’t a particularly attractive ant characteristic, but unfortunately it is one that may seem all too familiar to us humans.

Ants Use Tools

That’s right, tools. For example, some ants transport liquid and other non-solid food by dropping bits of leaves, sand or mud pellets or pieces of wood into a pool of food and, after the food has soaked in, using these objects to carry the meal back to their nests.11 Other ants use pebbles and soil pellets as weapons, dropping them on other ants or ground-dwelling bees, and then attacking and killing their competitors.12

Ants Build Cooperative Solutions

Hey, watch your foot! You're stepping on my head! (photo: Mlot, Tovey & Hu)

Ants, including army ants, are known to self-assemble into living bridges or ladders that allow them to cross gaps while on the move. When a single ant cannot make it across alone, other ants will successively grab on, steadily lengthening the bridge until it’s long enough to reach the destination. These structures, which can span significant distances and can even cross water, are then used by the rest of the colony and may stay in place for hours, until traffic dies down.13 Comparably, fire ants self-assemble into waterproof rafts to survive floods. These rafts can be made up from anywhere from a few hundred to many thousand ants and are incredibly durable, allowing ants to sail for months at a time as they migrate.

Ants Have “Collective Intelligence”

The concept of collective intelligence has been hot lately, with a number of books and articles describing how groups can make collectively make sophisticated decisions and solve complex problems, even where each individual in the group knows very little, collectively a g (think of the analogy of each individual acting as a neuron, and the group as a whole acting as a collective brain). Collective intelligence is a topic unto itself, one we may address in future posts, but for now suffice it to say that if ants truly can make wise decisions as a group, we humans may really have something to envy!

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ResearchBlogging.org1Holldobler, B & E. O. Wilson (2009). The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 5. ISBN 0-393-06704-1.

2Ibid.

3Schultz, T. (2000). In search of ant ancestors Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97 (26), 14028-14029 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.011513798.

4Franks, N., & Richardson, T. (2006). Teaching in tandem-running ants Nature, 439 (7073), 153-153 DOI: 10.1038/439153a; Richardson, T., Sleeman, P., McNamara, J., Houston, A., & Franks, N. (2007). Teaching with Evaluation in Ants Current Biology, 17 (17), 1520-1526 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.08.032.

5Franks, N., Hooper, J., Dornhaus, A., Aukett, P., Hayward, A., & Berghoff, S. (2007). Reconnaissance and latent learning in ants Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 274 (1617), 1505-1509 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2007.0138.

6Chameron, S., Schatz, B., Pastergue-Ruiz, I., Beugnon, G., & Collett, T. (1998). The learning of a sequence of visual patterns by the ant Cataglyphis cursor Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 265 (1412), 2309-2313 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.1998.0576; Reznikova, Z. 2008: Experimental paradigms for studying cognition and communication in ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Myrmecological News 11: 201-214.

7Schultz, T., & Brady, S. (2008). From the Cover: Major evolutionary transitions in ant agriculture Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (14), 5435-5440 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0711024105.

8Ibid.; Schultz, T. (1999). Ants, plants and antibiotics. Nature, 398 (6730), 747-748 DOI: 10.1038/19619.

9Nielsen, C., Agrawal, A., & Hajek, A. (2009). Ants defend aphids against lethal disease Biology Letters, 6 (2), 205-208 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2009.0743; Styrsky, J., & Eubanks, M. (2007). Ecological consequences of interactions between ants and honeydew-producing insects Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 274 (1607), 151-164 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2006.3701.

10Pohl, S., & Foitzik, S. (2011). Slave-making ants prefer larger, better defended host colonies Animal Behaviour, 81 (1), 61-68 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2010.09.006; Brandt M, Foitzik S, Fischer-Blass B, & Heinze J (2005). The coevolutionary dynamics of obligate ant social parasite systems–between prudence and antagonism. Biological reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 80 (2), 251-267 PMID: 15921051; Hölldobler, B. & Wilson, E.O., 1990. The Ants, Harvard University Press.

11FELLERS, J., & FELLERS, G. (1976). Tool Use in a Social Insect and Its Implications for Competitive Interactions Science, 192 (4234), 70-72 DOI: 10.1126/science.192.4234.70.

12See, e.g., Pierce, J. (1986). A Review of Tool Use in Insects The Florida Entomologist, 69 (1) DOI: 10.2307/3494748.

13Mlot NJ, Tovey CA, & Hu DL (2011). Fire ants self-assemble into waterproof rafts to survive floods. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108 (19), 7669-73 PMID: 21518911.

Elephant Insight

With each passing week, it seems like we’re finding out more and more about how smart elephants are. Now, in addition to their other cognitive abilities, it turns out that elephants can have “aha!” moments of insight as they face puzzling dilemmas. [No, not a-ha as in 1980s synth-pop from Norway; if you’re looking for an early MTV a-ha moment, you should probably go here!]

Elephants have the largest brains and the greatest volume of cerebral cortex of all terrestrial mammals. They live in elaborate matriarchal societies that include long-lasting relationships, close family bonds, and complex social groupings that change over time. They squabble and negotiate with each other over travel directions; they flirt, show empathy towards one another and solve problems cooperatively. They are one of the very few animals that can recognize themselves in mirrors (more about self-recognition testing here and here). True to their reputations, they have terrific memories, are adept at making and using tools, are logical thinkers, and even appear to mourn their dead in a “ceremonial” manner suggesting they may have a real awareness of the separate lives and experiences of other elephants.

Until now, however, on the few occasions when elephants have been tested for insightful problem solving abilities, they have been performed poorly. In these previous tests, the elephants failed to use their trunks in order to gain access to food treats that had been placed just beyond reach (for example, by using a stick grasped in the trunk to reach out for the food, or by pulling on a retractable cord with their trunks in order to reel in the food reward).

In a paper just published online on August 18th in PLoS ONE, a research team led by Preston Foerder and Diana Reiss of the City University of New York reported on its own revelation that led to a breakthrough in tests for elephant problem-solving insight. The researchers surmised that the problem with prior testing was not that elephants were incapable of insight, but rather that the tests had called for the elephants to act in ways that undermined their ability to use their trunks as effective sense organs during the task:

We believe that the problem in previous studies has been in treating the elephant trunk as a grasping appendage analogous to a primate hand. Although the trunk is a highly manipulable appendage, in food foraging its function as a sensory organ may take precedence. The elephant has an extraordinary sense of smell, and the tip of the trunk is as highly enervated as a human fingertip…. When a stick is held in the trunk, the tip is curled backwards and may be closed, prohibiting olfactory and tactile feedback…. We posit that previous failures to observe insightful problem solving in elephants is not indicative of a lack of cognitive ability but rather is due to the reliance on problem solving tasks that precluded the use of the trunk as a sense organ.

To address this issue, the researchers set up a series of experiments designed to allow elephants to keep their trunks free while facing problem-solving challenges. They tested three Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), two adult females and a 7-year-old juvenile male, at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, with the juvenile male, Kandula, soon emerging as the rock star problem-solver.

In the first experiment, the researchers dangled enticing fruit rewards from a cable they had placed across the elephant yard, including from positions that were just beyond trunk-reach. After leaving a large plastic cube and some other objects in the yard, they let Kandula into the yard for sessions to see whether he would figure out how to obtain the dangling food reward. While Kandula had previously played with the cube as an enrichment toy, he had no prior training in pushing large objects or in standing on them to reach for things.

During an initial six sessions, each lasting 20 some minutes, Kandula showed interest in the food dangling above his reach, played with the cube, moved it on several occasions, and once even stood on it briefly, but never tried to reach out for anything while standing on the cube.

Then, during the seventh session, Kandula suddenly had his moment of epiphany: he rolled the cube into position beneath the hanging food, stood on the cube with his front two feet, stretched out his trunk, and grabbed his prize.

Kandula - Insightful and Now Less Hungry Elephant

From then on, Kandula was off to the races. In the next session, he not only rolled the cube over and stood on it to reach the fruit again, he also started using the cube as a tool to reach other objects: e.g., standing on it to explore the inside of an enrichment object and, after rolling it to the edge of the yard, using it as a platform to reach for blossoms on an overhanging tree branch.

Moreover, Kandula showed he was able to apply his insight to new situations. For example, in a second experiment, the researchers used the same general setup, but began moving the cube around from place to place, including behind fences and in locations that Kandula couldn’t see as he entered the yard. In each case, Kandula found the cube and rolled it over to capture his food reward. Here’s a video of Kandula retrieving the cube from behind a fence:

Next, the researchers replaced the cube with a large tractor tire – in three of four sessions Kandula used the tire as a tool, rolling it to the proper place, and then standing on it to obtain the food reward.

In a final experiment, the researchers replaced the cube and the tire with a variety of other objects, including large plastic balls, discs, cones, a barrel lid and three cutting boards that would have to be stacked to form a platform for Kandula to reach the food. While Kandula didn’t stack all three boards (he did stack two, though), he experimented with various approaches such as standing with one foot on separate objects. Ultimately, he reached the food by standing on a plastic ball, a solution that surprised the researchers since he had never placed his weight on a similarly unstable platform before.

So, to summarize, Kandula demonstrated sudden insight – using a tool to solve a problem in a novel and spontaneous fashion, without evidence of prior trial and error learning. Further, he showed that he could repeat, transfer and extend his technique in subsequent sessions.

If you’re an elephant, please feel free to give yourself a pat on the back. Job well done!

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1Foerder, P., Galloway, M., Barthel, T., Moore, D., & Reiss, D. (2011). Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian Elephant PLoS ONE, 6 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0023251.

Cornered Rat Waves Poisoned Tool, Attacker Flees in Terror!

Screams the tabloid headline…

Is this the plotline for a sequel to The Planet of the Apes in which mistreated lab rats rebel against cruel animal experimenters?

No, it’s actually an accurate (ok, a bit sensationalized) description of the way in which a small African rat has opportunistically found a way to deploy a poison tool (yes, tool, see below) to defend itself from predators.

For years, observers had suspected something was up with the African crested rat (Lophiomys imhausi): it moves sluggishly, acts fearlessly – practically inviting predators to attack it – and twists around to display boldly-patterned black and white bands along its flanks when it’s excited or threated. Some have speculated that these displays could be designed to mimic the appearance of the spiny porcupine or skunk-like zorilla, and over the years there have been reports suggesting that the crested rat may be poisonous, based in part on anecdotes about dogs retreating in fear from the small rodents or showing signs of having been poisoned after crested rat run-ins.

The mystery of the crested rat was cleared up last week, when a team of researchers led by Jonathan Kingdon of the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology, published their findings about the rat’s unique set of defenses online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B1.

Poisonous Defense

The researchers found that the crested rat gnaws and chews the roots and bark of local Acokanthera schimperi trees, which contain a substance called ouabain that is used in a traditional African arrow poison known to be capable of killing elephants by amplifying heart contractions. In chewing on the bark and roots, the rat creates a thick gel-like mixture of saliva and plant toxins, which it proceeds to slather onto the distinctively colored fur along its flanks. Here’s a video of the crested rat in which it briefly displays some grooming behavior:

As it turns out, the hairs of the fur in crested rat’s flank-area are highly specialized and extremely well-suited to deliver this self-applied poisonous mixture. These hairs are essentially perforated cylinders containing fiber-like strands that act as wicks, rapidly absorbing the slobbery, poisonous gel and drawing it up by capillary action. When the researchers chemically analyzed the hairs by infrared spectroscopy, they found strong evidence that that they were indeed absorbing and wicking up ouabain from the saliva mixture. Here’s another video of the hairs doing showing off their wicking abilities (that’s red dye in the video, not blood!):

Properly armed with this potent poison and benefited by some additional physical adaptations (an armored skull, enlarged vertebrae, and dense and thick skin), the crested rat enjoys a suite of defenses that allow it to stare down many a predator. The research paper describes the crested rat’s behavior when threatened:

Flaring of the fur is triggered by external interference or attack on the animal, whereupon white and black banding of the longer hairs on either side of the lateral line effects outlines of the tract in a bold white and black ‘target’ design. An aggravated rat pulls its head back into its shoulders and turns its flared tract towards its adversary as if actively soliciting an attack. This display may or may not be accompanied by vocalizations.

No, you don’t want to mess with Lophiomys imhausi.

The researchers characterize the crested rat’s poisonous defense as “toxicity by acquisition” never before reported for a placental mammal, noting that the closest mammalian analogy may be European hedgehogs, who are known to slather their spines with a mixture of toad venom and saliva, presumably to increase the pain and discomfort that their spines can inflict. By contrast, they point out that there’s no evidence that the crested rat needs to create any kind of a wound; rather, the would-be predator is poisoned when it bites – or even just mouths – the crested rat.

So, is the crested rat just a fascinatingly well-adapted defender, or is it a full-fledged tool user?

Tool Use

Tool user! (We at AnimalWise are never shy about making pronouncements … or speaking about ourselves in the “royal we.”)

Even poisonous rats like carrots! (photo credit: Susan Rouse)

Although not mentioned in the research report, the crested rat’s deployment of the plant toxins does indeed qualify as “tool use” as defined in Benjamin Beck’s Animal Tool Behavior, the most complete catalog of tool use in animals. The original 1980 version contained what remains one of the most widely-accepted scientific definitions of the term:

[T]he external employment of an unattached environmental object to alter more efficiently the form, position, or condition of another object, another organism, or the user itself, when the user holds or carries the tool during or just prior to use and is responsible for the proper and effective orientation of the tool.2

In 2011, this treatise was substantially revised and updated, and now contains the following definition:

The external employment of an unattached or manipulable attached environmental object to alter more efficiently the form, position, or condition of another object, another organism, or the user itself, when the user holds and directly manipulates the tool during or prior to use and is responsible for the proper and effective orientation of the tool.3

While it’s not all that much fun wading through the definitions (would they read better in verse?), the authors themselves make it clear that they would consider the crested rat’s “self-anointment” behavior to be tool use: the bark/roots are “unattached environmental objects,” the crested rat uses them to provide itself with a more efficient defensive position, it holds (carries) and manipulates the tool, and is responsible for properly and effectively orienting it.

In fact, the authors have come up with what they call modes of tool use, including several – Affix (attaching an object to the body with adhesive), Apply (attaching a fluid or object to the body without adhesive) and Drape (placing an object on the body temporarily) – which are directly applicable here.4

Moreover, considering only rodents (there are other examples elsewhere in the animal kingdom), the authors specifically call out a number of additional examples of “Affix, Apply, Drape” tool use by self-anointers: rice-field rats that apply the anal gland secretions of the weasel, one of their predators, presumably for concealment purposes; and California ground squirrels, rock squirrels, and Siberian chipmunks that anoint themselves with the scent of rattlesnakes by chewing shed snakeskin, applying dirt (substrate) the snake has been contacted with, and/or anointing themselves with snake urine, all most likely for “olfactory camouflage” purposes.5

So, there you have it. The crested rat is bold, it’s brave, it’s poison, and it’s a tool user!

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1Kingdon, J., Agwanda, B., Kinnaird, M., O’Brien, T., Holland, C., Gheysens, T., Boulet-Audet, M., & Vollrath, F. (2011). A poisonous surprise under the coat of the African crested rat Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1169.

2Beck, B.B. 1980. Animal tool behavior. New York: Garland (as quoted in Shumaker, Robert W.; Walkup, Kristina R.; Beck, Benjamin B.; Burghardt, Gordon M. (2011-04-28). Animal Tool Behavior: The Use and Manufacture of Tools by Animals (Kindle Locations 299-301). JHUP. Kindle Edition).

3Shumaker, Walkup; Beck & Burghardt 2011 (Kindle Locations 372-375).

4Id. (Kindle Location 601).

5Id. (Kindle Locations 1934-1943).

Archerfish: Shooting Dinner from the Sky

Today’s featured guest is the fantastic archerfish, who merits this honor for several good reasons:

  • It is totally cool.
  • It performs highly complex cognitive tasks with tremendous efficiency.
  • It raises interesting questions about how we define tool use.

Archerfish in Action

First, the totally cool.

The archerfish is a small fish that earns a living by shooting prey – insects, spiders and even small lizards – out of the sky, knocking them off twigs and leaves and into the water with an incredibly accurate jet of water launched from its mouth. Here’s a brief video that shows off the archerfish’s hunting skills:

Pretty incredible, huh?

Complex Calculations

And this brings us to the topic of the archerfish’s specialized and complex cognitive abilities.

As the video notes, because the archerfish hunts from beneath the water’s surface, it must be able to take into account both the bending of light at the surface of the water and the curvature of the water stream it shoots toward a target perched as much as two meters away. I’m not aware of any studies on how adept humans are at shooting water pistols at above-ground targets while snorkeling, but in an accuracy contest, I’m betting on the archerfish.

Additionally, in a report published in Current Biology1 in 2006, researchers from Erlangen-Nürnberg University in Germany showed that the archerfish not only aim accurately, but are able to save energy by estimating the size of their prey and modifying the amount of water they shoot. Using high speed photography, the researchers “discovered that archerfish transfer systematically larger maximum forces to larger targets … for any given size of prey, the fish apply about ten times the forces the adhesive organs of prey of that size could maximally sustain.”

Dinner is served! (photo credit: Peter Arnold)

In a later study published in Science2, the same research group elaborated on the efficiency and speed with which archerfish are able to swim to the precise spot where their prey will land after being hit by a water jet. (Because archerfish hunt in groups and are surrounded by other surface-feeders, they have to be able to swim to fallen prey extremely quickly or they will lose it to another hungry mouth.)

The researchers found that archerfish are able react to the motion of falling prey and start swimming to the correct spot at the correct speed within as little as 40 milliseconds, 1/20 of a second. Moreover, the archerfish accomplish this complex task (which requires them to process a host of variables, including the initial height of the prey, the speed of the fall, and the direction in which it is falling) using relatively few neurons and without reference to a priori information regarding the trajectory of the water jet that hit the prey. As the researchers summarized it, “our data show that even complex decisions can be made rapidly and accurately by a relatively small number of neurons.”

So, as we consider the meaning of the archerfish’s impressive skills, we should bear in mind that sophisticated cognitive behavior can evolve to address the particular tasks and challenges facing a species, and that even an animal with a small, non-mammalian brain can accomplish “super-human” cognitive feats if those feats help the animal to successfully adapt to its ecological niche.

Tool Use?

One final question is whether the archerfish is engaging in tool use when it shoots down its dinner with jets of water. We touched on this in the earlier post regarding the fearsome clam-smashing tuskfish, noting Jane Goodall’s definition of tool use as “the use of an external object as a functional extension of mouth or hand in the attainment of an immediate goal.” While there will undoubtedly continue to be debate and disagreement over the definition of tool use, some points to ponder for now include:

  • Does the water used by the archerfish constitute an “external object” within the meaning of the Goodall definition? On the one hand, the water was external to the archerfish until it decided to use it to shoot down prey; on the other, the water obviously is not external right at the moment it is launched.
  • Does the “external object” need to be solid, as alluded to in the earlier tuskfish post? Why should the consistency of the object matter?
  • Can one argue that the archerfish is transforming the nature of the water (from a surrounding environmental medium into a targeted projectile)? If yes, does this imply that the archerfish’s use is more sophisticated than, say, simply picking up a rock lying outside on the ground (or a monkey wrench hanging on an Ace Hardware rack) and using it as is?
  • Some researchers have described behavior that meets some, but not all, of the requirements of a strict tool use definition as “proto” or “borderline” tool use. Is that what we are talking about here?
  • Should the behavior speak for itself without attempting to attach a label to it? Why does it matter whether or not we categorize the behavior as tool use? Is there something anthropomorphic about the “tool use” label in the first place?
These are all interesting questions, at least for those of us who are not preoccupied with shooting our dinner out of the sky.

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1Schlegel, T., Schmid, C., & Schuster, S. (2006). Archerfish shots are evolutionarily matched to prey adhesion Current Biology, 16 (19) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2006.08.082.

2Schlegel, T., & Schuster, S. (2008). Small Circuits for Large Tasks: High-Speed Decision-Making in Archerfish Science, 319 (5859), 104-106 DOI: 10.1126/science.1149265.

Female Dolphins Sponge Their Way to Success

After 27 years, scientists finally appear to have unraveled most of the mystery surrounding a very enterprising group of (primarily) female bottlenose dolphins (tursiops aduncus) who live in Shark Bay, off the coast of Western Australia.

Why are those dolphins looking at me like that? (photo credit: Eric Patterson, Shark Bay Dolphin Project)

The story opens in 1984, when observers first noticed that some of the Shark Bay dolphins were breaking off conical marine basket sponges and wearing them over their beaks (rostra). Because only a small percentage of the dolphins in the area engaged in this behavior and it was very difficult to see what they were doing with the sponges, especially when they were underwater, the first research on this behavior wasn’t published until over a decade later.

Preliminary Findings: Tool Use by a Few Females

In a 1997 article in Ethology1, a team of researchers led by Janet Mann of Georgetown University described their initial findings: five female dolphins were regularly seen with sponges, and four additional dolphins (only one of which was a male) were each seen carrying sponges on a single occasion. The regular sponge users were relatively solitary, tended to use the sponges in a deep water channel area, and did not participate in the group feeding and social aggregations to which other dolphins in the group were attracted.

The researchers weren’t sure what the dolphins were doing with the sponges, but they assumed that there had to be some sort of functional advantage, since the sponges were often quite large, covering a large portion of the dolphin’s face, interfering with normal use of the mouth, contributing to hydrodynamic drag, and potentially impacting the ability to engage in echolocation. They considered three possibilities: that the dolphins were playing with the sponges, that the sponges contained some medicinal or other useful compound, or that the dolphins were using the sponges as a tool to aid in foraging.

They concluded that it wasn’t likely that the sponges were being used as toys, as the spongers were relatively solitary, used the sponges methodically for hours at a time, year after year, and didn’t engage in typical play postures, splashing or vocalizations as they carried the sponges. Similarly, they determined that medicinal or similar uses were unlikely, since, among other things, the regular sponge users all seemed healthy and there were no indications that they were ingesting the sponges (although the researchers conceded that this could be difficult to observe).

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to sponge I go! (photo credit: Eric Patterson, Shark Bay Dolphin Project)

On the other hand, it did seem likely that the dolphins were using the sponges to help them forage for prey: they were seen eating fish when engaging in sponging behavior; they invested an amount of time in carrying sponges similar to that invested by other foraging dolphins; and they made sounds and generally behaved in ways consistent with foraging. The researchers speculated that sponges might be used to protect the dolphin’s face, either from spines or stingers of prey animals or from the abrasive sea floor as they flushed out burrowing prey. In either case, they believed that this would constitute “tool use,” something that had been reported in captive dolphins but never before in the wild.

Finally, the researchers drew no conclusions on why males didn’t engage in sponging, except to note that perhaps it required a degree of solitary living that was at odds with their need to form and maintain cohesive and cooperative alliances.

Additional Findings: A Cultural Tradition of Tool Use among a Related Group of Females

Next, in 2005, Mann’s researcher team expanded on its findings in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences2, with salient points of the research including the following:

  • Sponges Are Foraging Tools. By this time, the researchers had found 15 adults in the community who regularly used sponges, only one of whom was a male. Although not a focus of the paper, it appears that the researchers had concluded by this time that the dolphins were indeed using the sponges as tools to protect their rostra as they foraged for prey on the sea floor.
  • “Sponging Eve.” The researchers tested the mitochondrial DNA of the regular spongers and found that sponging had been passed on mainly along a single matriline (line of descent from mother to daughter) and that, due to the high degree of genetic relatedness, all spongers likely descended from one recent “Sponging Eve.”
  • Female Social Culture. After considering in detail whether the sponging behavior could have resulted from either a genetic propensity or some unique aspect of the deep-water channels where the most of the sponging occurred, the researchers found the evidence for these alternatives lacking and concluded that by far the best explanation was that the sponge use was being socially learned and transmitted from mother to daughter. The researchers weren’t overly surprised by this finding, given that studies had already shown that dolphins have uncommonly complex cognitive and imitative skills and the ability to excel at vocal and social learning.
  • Uncommon Cultural Diversity. It was particularly rare to see this sort of cultural phenomenon in a small subset of the overall population (a single maternal line comprising only about 10% of the females in the group). In other studies (for example, involving apes), this type of culturally learned behavior is seen across the entire population.
  • Can’t Explain Males. Once again, the researchers surmised that perhaps males didn’t engage in sponging because they had to associate at high levels with alliance partners, but they left this point open.

The Story Continues: Spongers Are Fit

The story continued to unfold in 2008, when Mann and her team published a paper in PLoS ONE3 that focused in more on whether sponging was an advantageous behavior, or whether the spongers were in some fashion subordinate or less competitive and were making the “best of a bad situation.”

I don't know what you mean, it's no more elaborate than the other hats at the Royal Wedding... (photo credit: Eric Patterson, Shark Bay Dolphin Project)

By this point, recurrent sponging had been seen in 41 of the dolphins and a few more of them were male (29 were females, 6 were males, and 6 were of unknown sex). This still represented a small percentage (about 11% of adult females were spongers) and, although it now appeared that more than one matriline was involved, the data continued to show that the behavior was consistently passed down from mother to daughter, and less frequently from mother to son: there were no instances observed where a calf adopted the behavior if its mother wasn’t a sponger, and of 19 offspring born to sponger females who could be observed and whose sex was known, 91% of the daughters (10 of 11) and 25% of the sons (2 of 8) adopted sponging.

Further, the researchers found that the spongers were highly specialized, not using other hunting techniques and spending approximately 96% of their foraging time using sponges. In fact, the researchers concluded that, due to their lifestyle and specialization, spongers actually used tools more than any non-human animal.

So, was the sponging advantageous or a way of coping for not particularly well-adapted dolphins? Well, the researchers did find that spongers were more solitary and spent more time foraging at deeper depths and on longer dives, but noted that they really didn’t seem to suffer from any kind of fitness cost, as their calving success was equivalent to that of other females in the population.

Since there was no evidence that any kind of competition for food was relegating the spongers to their strategy, the research concluded that sponging simply seemed to be an “all-or-none phenomenon,” that required a specialized approach and a commitment to a single foraging type, but that most likely opened up a particular hunting niche in a diverse environment. While other dolphins could theoretically adopt the strategy, the researchers noted that daughters in particular tend to adopt their mothers’ foraging strategy, and unless the mother was a sponger, a daughter might simply not have had sufficient exposure to develop this highly specialized technique while a calf.

Once again, the team hypothesized about the males, stating: “Male offspring are exposed to sponging as often as female offspring, but do not seem to adopt the behaviour early, if at all. … [M]ales likely range more widely post-weaning, focus on establishing long-term alliances, and cannot afford to adopt foraging tactics that both demand extensive effort and specialization and limit their range and access to females.”

The researchers offered no opinions about whether the male dolphins were simply slow on the uptake or whether they associated sponges with housework to be avoided.

The Latest Chapter: Explaining the Purpose of Sponging

While all of this research had answered many questions and shed light on a fascinating example of tool use in wild female dolphins, one fundamental question remained. Dolphins are great at using echolocation to detect prey (even prey that is buried), so why do the Shark Bay spongers probe the debris-covered sea floor with their noses, risking injury (even with the protection afforded by the sponges) instead of minimizing sea floor contact by simply echolocating for buried prey as they do in other locations (for example, the Bahamas)?

What a mess! This sea floor needs a good sponging! (photo credit: Eric Patterson, Shark Bay Dolphin Project)

This is the question is answered in the latest chapter, a research paper published last week in PLoS ONE4. Mann’s research team had fun with this one, grabbing poles and going sponging themselves. What they found, aside from the fact that dolphins are far more graceful than people, was that the nature of the prey turned up by sponging helps explain the dolphins’ behavior.

It turns out that most of the bottom-dwelling fish that hide in Shark Bay the sea bottom lack swim bladders, gas-filled chambers used by fish to control their buoyancy as they swim up and down. Because they lack the major characteristic that distinguishes their density from sea water, they generate relatively weak acoustic signals and are difficult to detect with echolocation. In addition, the debris (rock, shell and coral) on the sea floor in the area seemed likely to cause “interfering reverberation and echo clutter,” which would further reduce the effectiveness of echolocation.

Moreover, it’s worth it to go after these swim bladderless fish. They are attractive targets, as they are reliably present on the sea floor and exhibit consistent, predictable behavior when rousted out of their hiding places, allowing the dolphins to adopt a single efficient technique as they sponge. Further, bladderless fish tend to have a relatively high fat content, providing hungry dolphins with a particularly energy-rich meal.

So, the sponging female dolphins of Shark Bay really are quite remarkable. They have established a mother-daughter subculture of tool use in the wild, successfully devising a highly specialized way of exploiting an attractive niche in their diverse environment.

You go girl(s)!

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1Smolker, R., Richards, A., Connor, R., Mann, J., & Berggren, P. (2010). Sponge Carrying by Dolphins (Delphinidae, Tursiops sp.): A Foraging Specialization Involving Tool Use? Ethology, 103 (6), 454-465 DOI: 10.1111/j.1439-0310.1997.tb00160.x.

2Krutzen, M. (2005). Cultural transmission of tool use in bottlenose dolphins Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102 (25), 8939-8943 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0500232102.

3Mann, J., Sargeant, B., Watson-Capps, J., Gibson, Q., Heithaus, M., Connor, R., & Patterson, E. (2008). Why Do Dolphins Carry Sponges? PLoS ONE, 3 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003868.

4Patterson, E., & Mann, J. (2011). The Ecological Conditions That Favor Tool Use and Innovation in Wild Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops sp.) PLoS ONE, 6 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0022243.

Chimps Don’t Ape Humans – Develop Tools Independently

The more we learn about the capabilities of animals, the less it seems we can claim as uniquely our own. Now it appears that we may even have to share our treasured Flintstones cartoons, as we have learned that we aren’t the only species to have enjoyed an ancient Stone Age history.

Chimp eating nuts and thinking about upcoming Chimpanzee Iron Age

A few years ago, archeologists led by Julio Mercader of the University of Calgary discovered that chimpanzees in West Africa were using stone tools to crack nuts thousands of years ago, before humans had begun engaging in agriculture in the area. The research team, exploring sites located in the Ivory Coast’s Taï National Park, found stone “hammers” that were 4,300 years old and that had all the hallmarks of chimpanzee tools, rather than human ones. Science 2.01 described the tool findings as follows:

The stone hammers that the team discovered, essentially irregularly shaped rocks about the size of cantaloupes – with distinctive patterns of wear – were used to crack the shells of nuts. The research demonstrates conclusively that the artifacts couldn’t have been the result of natural erosion or used by humans. The stones are too large for humans to use easily and they also have the starch residue from several nuts known to be staples in the chimpanzee diet, but not the human diet.

The research team elaborated further in the paper it published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences2:

This discovery speaks of true prehistoric great ape behavior that predates the onset of agriculture in this part of Africa. The chimpanzee assemblages are contemporaneous with the local Later Stone Age; thus, they represent a parallel “Chimpanzee Stone Age”….

The systematic archaeological study of prehistoric chimpanzee cultures suggests that the “Chimpanzee Stone Age” started at least 4,300 years ago, that nut-cracking behavior in the Taï forest has been transmitted over the course of >200 generations, and that chimpanzee material culture has a long prehistory whose deep roots are only beginning to be uncovered. These findings substantiate the contribution of rainforest archaeology to human evolutionary studies in areas other than the classical savanna-woodlands of East and Southern Africa and add support to fossil discoveries from these other regions indicative of an ancient chimpanzee past.

I love it: the Chimpanzee Stone Age! Also, it’s amazing that this tool use tradition has been passed down over 200 generations, and is still in use today.  Here’s a nice BBC video clip that shows today’s generation of chimps using the same sort of tools to expertly crack open nuts.

Archeology3, the official publication of the Archeological Institute of America, haled Mercader’s research as one of the “Top 10 Discoveries” of 2007, noting that:

The discovery shows that stone tool use is not a behavior that chimpanzees learned recently by watching the farmers who live in the area, as some skeptics believe. Mercader thinks that humans and chimpanzees may have inherited stone tool use from an ancestral species of ape that lived as long as 14 million years ago.

At this point, Mercader’s views on the origins of tool use are still open to debate and further research. The fact, though, that there can even be such a discussion about tool use, a capability once thought to so uniquely identify the human species, illuminates how much thinking we have had to do recently about the common characteristics we share with other animals. Interesting stuff.

We’ll keep you posted as the story unfolds, and let you know as soon as they discover the first prehistoric chimpanzee satellite TV dishes and computer operating systems.

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1Science 2.0, “Hammer Using Chimps Make Us Wonder Where They Learned It,” February 13, 2007.

2Mercader, J., Barton, H., Gillespie, J., Harris, J., Kuhn, S., Tyler, R., & Boesch, C. (2007). 4,300-Year-old chimpanzee sites and the origins of percussive stone technology Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (9), 3043-3048 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0607909104.

3Archeology, “Ancient Chimpanzee Tool Use,” Volume 61, Number 1, January/February 2008.

Tooling Around Underwater

Tool Time For Tuskfish

As reported last week in ScienceNOW1, a professional diver exploring the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia recently snapped the first photos of a fish using tools. The diver, Scott Gardner, came across a blackspot tuskfish (Choerodon schoenleinii) that was hovering over a sandy area near a rock with a clam in its mouth. The tuskfish rolled on its side and, with a repeated cracking noise, slammed the clam against the rock until the shell fractured. Here’s one of the photos that Gardner took of the industrious (and hungry) tuskfish:

Tuskfish cracking open clam (photo credit: Scott Gardner)

While there have been anecdotal accounts of other fish using tools, this is the first time that this type of behavior has been caught on film.

What Is Tool Use, Anyhow?

In an interesting aside, this incident has brought to the forefront some of the ways in which it is difficult to define, and reach agreement upon, exactly what constitutes “tool use” in animals.  As noted in the ScienceNOW article, there has been previous debate over whether stingrays and archerfish targeting jets of water to capture prey constitutes tool use (is a solid external object necessary for there to be a tool?), as well as whether tool use “requires the animal to hold or carry the tool itself, in this case the rock.”

The research paper regarding this tuskfish behavior, which was published in the most recent issue of Coral Reefs2, the official Journal of the International Society for Reef Studies, argues that the tuskfish using the rock as an anvil to open the clam conforms to a definition of tool use first formulated by Jane Goodall back in 1970, that tool use is “the use of an external object as a functional extension of mouth or hand in the attainment of an immediate goal.” The paper adds: “The use of a rock as an anvil rather than a hammer could be considered a sign of intelligence considering the ineffectiveness of manipulating a freely suspended tool in water. The images certainly provide an interesting starting point for further comparative studies on tool use in fishes.”

The ScienceNOW article describes how Culum Brown, a behavioral ecologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and a co-author of the Coral Reefs paper:

argues that it’s not logical to apply the same rules to fish as to primates or birds. For one thing, fish don’t have anything but their mouths to manipulate tools with, and for another, water poses different physical limitations than air. ‘One of the problems with the definition of tool use as it currently stands is it’s totally written for primates,’ he says. ‘You cannot swing a hammer effectively underwater.’

Those of you who pay close attention may already have noted that the definition of tool use can stir controversy. For example, beginning at the 10:34 mark in her video presentation relating to the awesome octopus, Maggie Koerth-Baker describes two very divergent definitions that might lead to different conclusions about whether the octopus engages in tool use: (a) a stricter definition that requires that an animal use a solid object to solve an “immediate problem,” rather than just to provide defense, and (b) a broader definition holding that tool use occurs whenever an animal modifies an object so as to alter some aspect of its environment.

Food For Thought

In considering tool use by animals, here are some things you might want to ponder:

  • Which of the above definitions makes the most sense to you?
  • Does it matter whether the behavior is performed by a captive animal (like the New Caledonian crow) or in the wild?
  • Are definitions of tool use inherently anthropocentric and subjective? That is, are we trying to come up with a definition that basically requires the behavior to look like something a human would do (if it really is a tool, then I should be able to see the Craftsman logo) before we accept it?
  • Is it significant whether the behavior is widespread? That is, if the behavior is only observed once or twice, is it a fluke? If the behavior is widespread, is it mere instinct?
  • Is nest building by birds an example of tool use?

Conclusion

There will undoubtedly be more AnimalWise posts about tool use. In the meantime, if you run across any tuskfish, you should look very closely to see if you can see their very small, teeny-tiny tool belts. They really are quite cute.

Here are some more photos (note, the following pictures may not be suitable for small children and clams):

More Scenes from "Crouching Tuskfish, Hidden Clam" (photo credit: Scott Gardner)

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1ScienceNOW, “Diver Snaps First Photo of Fish Using Tools,” July 8, 2011.

2Jones, A.M., Brown, C., Gardner, S. Tool use in the tuskfish Choerodon schoenleiniiCoral Reefs. DOI:10.1007/s00338-011-0790-y.

Something to Crow About

Some of you may be aware that crows (who are corvids, like magpies and Clark’s Nutcrackers) are excellent problem solvers and that they are one of the few birds known to engage in tool use.

While there have been a variety of popular press articles describing tool use by New Caledonian crows, in this post I wanted to showcase a few videos that demonstrate visually just how impressive these crows are.

The first video features a New Caledonian crow creating a bent wire hook to fish out a food treat after realizing that a straight piece of wire won’t do the trick. Check it out; it’s pretty incredible:

In a second demonstration of cognitive abilities, the crow employs a sequence of three tools to obtain food reward – using a short stick to withdraw a medium-length stick, using the medium-length stick to obtain a long stick, and then using the long stick to reach the food. As the video notes, this is the first time a non-human animal with no explicit training has been observed using three different tools in the correct sequence to achieve a goal. Again, the video illustrates this feat quite nicely:

Finally, a recent Wired1 article, together with accompanying video, features a New Caledonian crow finding a novel use for a tool, poking a rubber spider. This sort of flexible tool use is quite rare, and crows are the first non-mammals who have demonstrated that they can use a single tool in multiple ways. Here’s the video:

I love how the crow gingerly pokes at the rubber spider and then jumps back – talk about a a familiar looking reaction!

For more information and videos relating to tool usage by New Caledonian crows, you can explore the tool use website2 of the Behavioural Ecology Research Group at the University of Oxford.

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1Wired, “Clever Crows Use Tools in New Way,” January 5, 2011.

2Visited on July 11, 2011.

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