Puffin Uses Stick Tool to Scratch an Itch in Viral Video

|January 20, 2020
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Viral video shows puffin scratching an itch with a stick. Discover why scientists call the footage a scientific breakthrough!

The Internet was delighted when it discovered footage of a puffin scratching itself with a stick

We’ve all had that scratch we couldn’t quite itch. Some resourceful puffins came up with the answer to this universal problem! In a now viral video, a puffin is shown on camera scratching its back with a stick. The Internet blew up, because who doesn’t love funny animal videos? Scientists, however, were in awe for a different and important reason.

Lone Atlantic puffin floating off the coast of Iceland

But the video turned out to be more than animal antics and led to a scientific breakthrough

Colorful puffin on Grimsey Island flapping its wings

Caught on camera by scientist Annette L. Fayet, the bird was nesting on Grimsey Island in Iceland

University of Oxford scientist Annette L. Fayet studies the migration and feeding habits of puffins. In July 2018 she was studying a group of puffins at Grimsey Island in Iceland. According to the Washington Post, she set up cameras all around the island and recorded “loads and loads of puffin behavior.”

Puffin skids across the water with a freshly caught fish in its beak

Grimsey Island is one of Iceland’s most popular places for puffin watching

The northernmost point in Iceland, Grímsey is located right inside the Arctic Circle. Its seabird population vastly outnumbers humans, with 1 million seabirds and 100 humans. The most popular inhabitants are the puffins, with puffin tours running throughout the summer.

Orange lighthouse – Grimsey Island

In the video the bird sees a stick, picks it up with its beak, then scratches its chest with the pointy end

Puffin captured on camera with stick tool used to scratch its back

What makes the footage remarkable to scientists is that the puffin uses the stick as a tool

A group of puffins collected on a cluster of rocks on Grimsey Island

Scientists say that fewer than 1 percent of animal species use tools

The bird’s behavior “fits all current definitions” of tool use, University of Oxford zoologist Alex Kacelnik told the Washington Post. Kacelnik has studied toolmaking crows but was not a member of the puffin research team. Unlike the puffin, crows use sticks to catch grub, making the video even more peculiar.

Puffin stands onshore with freshly caught fish in its colorful beak

While this is the first time such a thing had been recorded on video, Fayet said she had noted the same behavior five years earlier

The first sighting was on a remote island in Wales about a thousand miles from Grimsey. Fayet spotted an Atlantic puffin floating at sea with a stick between its beak.

The bird began to use the stick to scratch its back. Fayet didn’t catch any photo evidence of the bird. “It was just one observation, and I was busy doing something else,” she told the Washington Post. While unusual, Fayet said she “kind of forgot about it.”

Member of puffin group stands flapping its wings ready to take off

Fayet’s video was sent to her colleague and resulted in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Fayet sent her footage to colleague Dora Biro, an animal behavior expert at the University of Oxford. Biro was immediately excited, as “this was a puffin, this was a seabird — and tool use had never been reported in seabirds before.” The pair joined forces with their colleague, biologist Erpur Snaer Hansen, to publish a study on puffin tool use.

Puffin opens its red and black beak to make its distinct growling sound

Back-scratching is a particularly rare form of tool use called “body care.”

According to Biro, the only other type of body care performed by wild birds is “anting,” where birds cover their bodies with insects. Biologists believe bug juices might act as chemical defenses against bird fungi or parasites.

Puffin twists around to groom its feathers with beak

Scientists are still unsure as to the exact reason behind the puffin behavior

Two puffins perform ‘billing’ courtship ritual where birds rub their beaks together

But then again who doesn’t like a good scratch now and then?

Watch the full video here!

Watch a puffin use a stick as a feather-scratching tool | Science News

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