Not every ‘Eureka’ moment has to change the world.
Scientists working in Brazil have filmed a clever little monkey inventing a new tool – a toothpick.
What’s more the female monkey, a bearded capuchin, also created a “sneeze stick”, a nasal probe she would stick up her nose to make herself sneeze.
Primatologists Dr Michael Haslam and Dr Tiago Falotico of the University of Oxford in the UK, spotted the monkey in the wilds of the Serra da Capivara National Park (SCNP) in Brazil.
The scientists were studying another group of monkeys in the area, which regularly use stone tools to pound and break open hard nuts and fruits to eat.
It is possible that sticking a long, potentially sharp object far up your nose is just not a good idea and so will never catch on
“I could hear a monkey sneezing, and that finally drew my attention to the female, as she seemed to be sneezing quite a lot, and at regular intervals,” Dr Haslam told BBC Earth.
“I realised that she was using a stick tool to trigger her sneezes, in fact a series of grass and stick tools. I was very surprised.”
“Then she started using the same tool as a toothpick, in quite a casual fashion as if it was a normal and regular behaviour.”
On seven occasions the monkey inserted a stiff stick into her teeth on the right side of her mouth, and wiggled it to and fro, working the teeth, before licking it.
“It was a serendipitous discovery,” he says, and it’s the first time either behaviour has been seen in wild capuchins.
Details are published in the journal Primates.
Male capuchins in the area are known to use sticks as foraging tools.
“But the adult females had never been observed doing so, despite hundreds of hours of observations by researchers such as my co-author, Dr Falotico,” says Dr Haslam.
“So it was a real puzzle why there was such a sexual bias in this one type of tool.”
“That puzzle remains of course,” he adds.
But the new observations show that female capuchins do use sticks for tools, albeit for a more personal or idiosyncratic function.
One other primate in the wild has been seen putting sticks up its nose. Chimpanzees in Mahale, Tanzania have also been observed using “sneeze sticks’.
“Obviously the Mahale chimpanzees and the Serra da Capivara capuchin have independently converged on the same behaviour.”
But neither habitually do so.
“It is possible that sticking a long, potentially sharp object far up your nose is just not a good idea and so will never catch on.”
Scientists are gradually discovering a wide variety of primates, of different species and groups within species, are inventing and using tools for a variety of purposes.
“Each is charting its own course through a maze of potential technological solutions,” suggests Dr Haslam.
“It is certain that new forms will continue to be discovered, both by the primates and by us watching them.”