Camera traps, tool-using skunks, and a new frontier of discovery

On a cold night this past February, a striped skunk wandered into a suburban Colorado Springs backyard carrying a stone in one paw. The skunk climbed onto a water bowl and, using the stone like a hammer, banged a hole in its frozen surface. It was the first documented occurrence of a skunk using a tool — and the evidence was gathered not by biologists, but by a nature-loving citizen with a motion-activated camera.

How much more might be learned made if scientists harnessed the richness of these amateur observations?

“The broad availability of technology,” says Mario Pesendorfer, a behavioral ecologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “and the dissemination of photos or clips via social media provide a new path to the discovery of rare phenomena.”

Pesendorfer, the lead author of an Ecosphere study describing the stone-wielding skunk, is joined on the paper by biologist Jerry Dragoo of the University of New Mexico and Suzanne Dickerson, known on Twitter as @CameraTrapSue. It was her tech-enabled curiosity that captured the natural history-making event.

“Do skunks use tools?” she asked in a tweet that started the whole affair. “I may be reading far too much into these photos.” She was not: according to Pesendorfer and ethologists to whom he showed the pictures, they provide “plausible evidence for tool use.” The skunk appeared to manipulate the rock “to change the condition of the ice surface to access an important resource.” The evidence isn’t conclusive, but it’s at least extremely suggestive.

Just a few decades ago, tool use was among the traits sometimes said to “make us human” — a formulation that’s now problematic, both because of the implication that humanity’s most treasured qualities are necessarily unique to our species, and also because tool use isn’t so unique. It’s been found in many other primates, a host of birds, even in octopi who carry coconut shell hideouts.

That said, there’s something about fiddling with objects in order to solve a problem that captures our gadget-loving imaginations. And it’s still an uncommon behavior: only one percent of all species, say Pesendorfer and Dragoo, have been observed using tools. Dickerson’s skunk has entered a special class.

To the researchers, this observation could help illuminate the evolution of cognitive traits underlying tool use. Other people might simply enjoy a deeper appreciation of their white-striped neighbors. Whatever the motivations, the study shows that people like Dickerson and her online community — discovered, as recounted in Ecosphere, after “family and friends soon tired” of seeing her backyard photos — are a potentially rich scientific resource.

“What is currently missing,” says Pesendorfer, “is a pipeline that connects the content providers and amateur naturalists with the scientists who could benefit from that information.” He proposes that research institutions develop new strategies for making these connections.

This would be, stress Pesendorfer and Dragoo, fundamentally different from other citizen science projects. Those typically involve scientists defining a project for which amateurs gather observations. Instead the amateur observations could come first, followed by more rigorous evaluation. It’s a modern update of naturalist tradition — a tradition that some people lament as withering in an era that favors targeted experiments over curious, wide-ranging observation.

For animals as for humans, though, new technologies can have unforeseen consequences. Other researchers have worried that, without some explicit recognition of privacy, data gathered by well-meaning people can be turned to nefarious ends. Australian authorities, for example, used tracking data gathered by ecologists to kill great white sharks; poachers in India tried to hack data from GPS-collared tigers.

In Colorado, skunks can be shot or trapped without limit between November and February. During the rest of the year it’s legal to kill “nuisance” skunks, and the definition of nuisance is expansive. Dickerson’s skunk should be safe, but it’s important to make sure that data-gathering doesn’t turn into doxxing.

It’s also imperative that, unlike a recent viral video captured by a bear-harassing drone operator, animals are not disturbed in the process.

“There are ethical boundaries,” says Pesendorfer. “This is a discussion that the scientific community and the general public need to have soon.”

Source: Pesendorfer et al., “Observation of tool use in striped skunks: how community science and social media help document rare natural phenomena.” Ecosphere, 2018.

Image: Pesendorfer et al. / Ecosphere

 

About the author: Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist specializing in animals, nature and science, and the author of The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories From the Living World. Connect with him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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