Understanding the Form and Function of Animal Tools

Materials Science and Mechanical Engineering/Bioengineering/Applied Mathematics

Animal tool behavior is exceedingly rare, yet surprisingly varied. Some birds and primates use stones to crack open hard-shelled food, while others use pieces of vegetation to winkle insects out of hiding places. Even invertebrate tool users employ different kinds of tools—hermit crabs collect shells for shelter; some spiders cast their webs over unsuspecting prey; and digger wasps use small pebbles as hammers during nest construction. While animals often source ready-to-use objects, they sometimes craft tools from raw materials, painstakingly creating particular shapes or design features. For example, one of my study species, the New Caledonian crow, targets specific plants with forked branches, to craft “crochet”-like hooked tools—the only case of non-human hook-making discovered to date.

I am looking for a research partner with a background in materials science and mechanical engineering, bioengineering, and/or applied mathematics, who is interested in helping me develop and test ideas about the functionality of animal tools. Research may include conceptual work, mathematical modeling and computer simulations, and/or practical experiments. This is an exciting opportunity to get involved in some blue skies, cross-disciplinary research.