Riccardo Pansini and Jan de Ruiter from Durham University watched a 18-year-old mandrill called JC clean his toenails out using small splinters. He made them himself, fashioning them from wood chips and twigs on the floor his enclosure, and honing them till they were small and sharp.
JC is the alpha male of the zoo’s six-strong group of mandrills. Over three months of observations, Pansini and de Ruiter saw JC give himself a pedicure seven times. On a couple of occasions, he ignored the wood altogether and just plucked out one of his own hairs to clean his nails with.
Many animals will use tools, but it’s not often that they modify those tools to make them more suitable for their needs. Chimps do it, as do New Caledonian crows. Among monkeys, biologists have documented a capuchin dressing her baby’s head wound with modified plants, spider monkeys making back-scratchers out of sticks, and Japanese macaques using their own wetted hair as dental floss. Some long-tailed macaques in a Thai temple will even make floss out of human hair – freshly plucked, no less.
Now, mandrills can join this exclusive club. Whether wild mandrills use tools in this way is not clear. It’s possible that JC, being well fed and sheltered, had more time to experiment with new tools and behaviours than his wild cousins would have. And one obvious question remains: why would a mandrill need to clean under its toenails?
Reference: Pansini, R., & de Ruiter, J. (2011). Observation of tool use and modification for apparent hygiene purposes in a mandrill Behavioural Processes DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2011.06.003
More English zoo mandrills doing amusing things: Monkey see, monkey facepalm
More animal tool use:
- Congolese chimps modify fishing-sticks to make them even more effective tools
- Culture shapes the tools that chimps use to get honey
- Capuchin monkeys are choosy about the best nutcrackers
- Crows and parrots – brainy birds, but in different ways
- Sponging dolphins keep it in the family
- Chimpanzees make spears to hunt bushbabies