How social media helped uncover a skunk that uses tools

Two holes in the ice caught Sue Dickerson’s attention when she checked a black plastic water dish in her yard one morning in February 2018. The temperature had dropped to 18 degrees Fahrenheit overnight, so it didn’t. Didn’t surprise her that the top layer of water in the dish had frozen. But what had made these holes? She studied them for a moment. Flickers, she thought. The woodpeckers often hung out in his front yard in Colorado Springs, Colo., And had likely pecked through the ice for a drink. Dickerson, who had come out to retrieve the photo card from the motion-activated camera she had set up near the dish, crouched down, put his index finger through one of the holes, and tossed the ice cream.

Back inside, she settled in front of her computer screen and started clicking through the photos. It had been her routine for over a decade to retrieve the card around 7:30 am each morning, then check for shots of wild animals that had strayed onto her property in the middle of the night. She had captured close-ups of badgers, bears, ground squirrels – even bobcats. So she wasn’t surprised that the first photo, taken at 4:01 a.m., was of a skunk with its nose sticking out of the edge of the plate.

A first, filmed by a backyard camera trap: a skunk using a rock as a tool. (Credit: Suzanne Dickerson)

Her heart beat a little faster, however, when she looked closer and saw what looked like a pebble in the skunk’s left front paw. In the following photo, the front half of the skunk’s body was above the ice and it appeared to be using the rock to break the ice; the third photo appeared to show the animal drinking. “I’ve had a camera in my backyard since 2008, so I’ve seen thousands and thousands of photos of skunks,” Dickerson says, “and I’ve never seen one holding a stone in its paw. ”

Not only did she know that not only did she make an unlikely sighting – scientists believe less than 1% of animals use tools – but that she was also set to be part of a growing phenomenon. As technologies that were once reserved for professionals, such as motion-sensing cameras and telephoto lenses, find themselves in the hands of more and more laymen, the amount of photographic documentation on wildlife has exploded. Today, often through the use of social media, this data is discovered and used by researchers. “I think there is huge potential for this kind of collaboration between scientists and passionate amateurs,” says Christian Rutz, professor at the Center for Biological Diversity at the University of St. Andrews. “We’re starting to see some of the first examples of people doing this, but I think there’s a lot more to come.”

Rutz recently co-wrote an article with a photographer while compiling a timeline of sightings of nuthatches, small songbirds, using tools. Rutz had found four published reports of the behavior in the academic literature – from 1968, 1993, 1995 and 2016 – but none offered photographic evidence of birds at work. At the last minute, Rutz figured he better double-check. “I did a classic Google image search, ‘use nuthatch tool’, just to make sure,” he says. A page appeared on, a blog created by Simon Deans, a retired supermarket executive. There were several photos of a Eurasian nuthatch using a piece of wood to try to lift a patch of willow bark, presumably in search of something to eat.

Deans spotted the unusual phenomenon in June 2013, while walking through a park near his home in south London. He had been in the park photographing birds for several hours and was due to pick up his daughter from school, but it was then that he noticed two nuthatches hovering around a willow tree. He raised his telephoto lens and stared at them for a moment. Then, as one of the birds scooped up the wood and tried to lift some bark, it started to crack. “I was very lucky to have managed to get the photographs,” he says.

He received a handful of kudos on his Facebook page, but no one who saw the photos acknowledged their importance – until Rutz, who despite his own excitement was reserved when he made contact for the first time with Deans. “I wanted him to honestly tell me the details of this sighting without getting certain answers,” he says.

He and other scientists say they need to be careful in interpreting data collected by lay people, and they don’t think data collected through social media or other online sources should be seen as an alternative. at work in the field. Nonetheless, they believe it would be foolish for researchers not to tap into such a resource. “We are currently undergoing very rapid environmental changes, from land conversion to climate change. And the challenge is that, especially for the types of animals that we study with camera traps, we have very little data. They are all nocturnal forest animals that hide, ”says Marcus Rowcliffe, senior researcher at the Zoological Society of London. He recently co-authored an article calling for an interconnected global network of remote motion detection cameras to monitor biodiversity. The effort would include training citizen scientists to set up and retrieve photos from camera traps in the wild.

“Such a network would not be a trivial thing to set up,” Rowcliffe says, “but could have enormous benefits.”

The work of amateur photographers has increasingly helped researchers researching rare or undocumented animal behaviors. Above, a nuthatch in a city park uses a stick to pull bark from a tree. (Credit: Simon Deans)

A benefit could be a better understanding of how different species adapt to climate change. Emiliano Mori, evolutionary biologist at the University of Siena, wanted to know more about the interference competition – when one species chases another from a resource they both want – between deer and chamois, a type of mountain goat from the western Alps. The two species have only recently started interacting, he says, as climate change pushes deer to higher elevations. When he checked the academic literature for evidence of these interactions, Mori came out empty. So he turned to the Facebook pages created for Italian amateur wildlife photographers and found 67 photographic examples. “I told them they were going to be part of a research paper and they were happy to participate,” he says of the photographers.

Dickerson also contacted a scientist after seeing his pictures of the skunk with the rock. She quickly posted several on her Twitter account with the comment, “Do skunks use tools? I may be reading way too much in these photos. Then she went to make herself a cup of tea. “Normally if I get 25 or 50 likes, that’s pretty good for me,” she says. “I went to make my tea, then came back just to see if someone might have retweeted it… and saw I had 100 notifications.” I started going through them and thought, “Oh wow, this is great, other people see what I see. “”

One of the first to respond to the tweet was Mario Pesendorfer, a postdoctoral researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who studies animal behavior. He reached out and asked Dickerson if she would like to co-author a research paper on the skunk using tools. Nine months later, the two, along with a third author, Jerry Dragoo, an expert in skunk behavior, published the discovery in the journal Ecosphere.

Having his photographs in a scientific journal after 10 years of using camera traps was extremely satisfying for Dickerson. But the best part of the whole process, she says, was the reaction of her two daughters. Although their eyes would normally be glassy when their mother started talking about her hobby, this was not the case when Dickerson showed them the photos and told them that she was probably the first person to film the hobby. use of a skunk tool.

“No!” his daughters exclaimed. “There is no way you could be the first person to do this. ”

Dickerson laughed. “I know you wouldn’t think so,” she replied, “but I really think there’s a chance I’m the first one.”

Nancy Averett is a freelance writer covering the environment. This story was originally posted as “#Wildlife”.

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