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Scientists' video shows puffin using stick as tool for body care

An Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) on the island of Skomer, off the coast of Wales, taken on September 13, 2016
A puffin on Skomer Island, off the coast of Wales, where scientists first observed the seabird using a tool. Photo: Olly Curtis/N-Photo Magazine/Future via Getty Images

A puffin has been caught on camera for the first time ever using a stick as a tool apparently for body care, a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals.

Why it matters: Per the study, such tool-use behavior was previously unknown for wild birds, "so far only documented in the wild in primates and elephants."

  • The scientists believe the puffins observed on- and off-camera in Wales and Iceland were likely trying to dislodge parasites or scratch an itch.
QuoteHere we provide evidence of a wild bird performing another form of tool use for physical maintenance."

Details: Annette L. Fayet, a scientist from the University of Oxford who studies puffins, first made the discovery on Skomer Island, off the coast of Wales in June 2014, when she saw one "holding a wooden stick in its bill and using it to scratch its back," the study states.

  • Four years later and over 1,000 miles from Skomer, a camera captured a puffin on Grimsey Island, off the north coast of Iceland, using a stick to scratch its chest feathers.

What they're saying: Puffins suffer from seabird ticks, "which were particularly abundant on Grimsey Island in the summer of 2018," the study states. "The stick may have helped with scratching or dislodging them, perhaps more effectively than the beak."

The big picture: Scientists have observed tool use in less than 1% of species. Other wild birds have been known to use tools, but not for body care.

  • "In birds, captive parrots have been reported to scratch with sticks, but to date the only avian tool use for physical maintenance reported in the wild is 'anting' (depositing ants on one’s plumage), observed in many species," mostly passerines, or "perching birds," the scientists note.

Watch the scientists' video: