The Evolutionary Origins and Ecological Context of Tool Use in New Caledonian Crows

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
C. Rutz, J. J. H. St Clair
Behavioural Processes
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New Caledonian (NC) crows Corvus moneduloides are the most prolific avian tool users. In the wild, they use at least three distinct tool types to extract invertebrate prey from deadwood and vegetation, with some of their tools requiring complex manufacture, modification and/or deployment. Experiments with captive-bred, hand-raised NC crows have demonstrated that the species has a strong genetic predisposition for basic tool use and manufacture, suggesting that this behaviour is an evolved adaptation. This view is supported by recent stable-isotope analyses of the diets of wild crows, which revealed that tool use provides access to highly profitable hidden prey, with preliminary data indicating that parents preferentially feed their offspring with tool-derived food. Building on this work, our review examines the possible evolutionary origins of these birds’ remarkable tool-use behaviour. Whilst robust comparative analyses are impossible, given the phylogenetic rarity of animal tool use, our examination of a wide range of circumstantial evidence enables a first attempt at reconstructing a plausible evolutionary scenario. We suggest that a common ancestor of NC crows, originating from a (probably) non-tool-using South-East Asian or Australasian crow population, colonised New Caledonia after its last emersion several million years ago. The presence of profitable but out-of-reach food, in combination with a lack of direct competition for these resources, resulted in a vacant woodpecker-like niche. Crows may have possessed certain behavioural and/or morphological features upon their arrival that predisposed them to express tool-use rather than specialised prey-excavation behaviour, although it is possible that woodpecker-like foraging preceded tool use. Low levels of predation risk may have further facilitated tool-use behaviour, by allowing greater expenditure of time and energy on object interaction and exploration, as well as the evolution of a ‘slow’ life-history, in which prolonged juvenile development enables acquisition of complex behaviours. Intriguingly, humans may well have influenced the evolution of at least some of the species’ tool-oriented behaviours, via their possible introduction of candlenut trees together with the beetle larvae that infest them. Research on NC crows’ tool-use behaviour in its full ecological context is still in its infancy, and we expect that, as more evidence accumulates, some of our assumptions and predictions will be proved wrong. However, it is clear from our analysis of existing work, and the development of some original ideas, that the unusual evolutionary trajectory of NC crows is probably the consequence of an intricate constellation of interplaying factors.


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