A sea otter floats on its back in the water.

Photograph by Kevin Schafer / Getty Images

The Mother of Invention

words by willow defebaugh

Tools have long been utilized throughout the animal kingdom. What can different species teach us about using our innovations to work with mother nature, rather than against her?

“The true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention.”


Out of everything that influences my mental wellbeing on a daily basis, I have found that the amount of time I spend engaging with technology has the most significant impact. Working from home, it can be easy to fall into a mindless routine with it. If I’m not being intentional, an entire day can slip by and I have spent most of it staring at screens. And while it’s tempting to view technology as a strange singularity for our species—something that separates us from the wider realm of nature—humans are by no means the only animals creative enough to use tools.


Drifting along the Pacific Coast of North America, sea otters can be found linking forefeet in rafts of individuals up to a 1,000 strong—sleeping on kelp beds in the safety of numbers. But this is not their only feat of ingenuity: sea otters have developed an effective tool for feeding themselves. While floating on their backs—made easier by their notably buoyant lungs—these animals will place rocks on their bellies and then smash sea urchins, crabs, and shellfish down on the rocks to break them open. This provides them access to nutrients that others might miss.


Another creature in the Kingdom Animalia has demonstrated a propensity for finding the right equipment for the task at hand. A study from the University of Oxford found that New Caledonian crows not only use sticks to fish out food from inaccessible spaces, but they can also fashion numerous smaller sticks into a larger one to aid them in this quest. Further research from Harvard University showed that these birds can even strip off leaves and curve sticks into hooks for tougher spots—and found that using such tools actually improved their moods.


Meanwhile, lurking in swamps is a reptile that uses similar tools in an entirely different way. Knowing that many birds collect twigs in order to build their nests, mugger crocodiles and American alligators have been seen gathering sticks themselves and balancing them atop their elongated snouts. Unsuspecting birds such as egrets swoop in and are met with an unpleasant surprise. Researchers noted that the alligators at St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park specifically applied this technology during nesting season—the ideal time for setting traps.


Along the ocean floor slinks another animal known for its intelligence—this one, an invertebrate. Veined octopuses have been found cladding themselves in discarded coconut shells and clams, using them as makeshift armor for their delicate flesh when danger approaches. They have even been observed to seek out and unite two coconut shell halves, crawling inside the husks to hide from predators and using their suctioned tentacles to hold these portable panic rooms in place. And so not all animals use tools for hunting and feeding—some engineer protection


Of course, no species has embraced technology to the level that humans have—for better and for worse. Technology is responsible for saving lives every day. I wouldn’t be here writing to you as my most authentic self if technology and modern medicine didn’t exist as they do now. In fact, I wouldn’t be writing to you at all without technology; it’s what has connected us in this space. And yet, extractive technology is impossible to disentangle from the climate crisis. Not to mention that AI industry leaders are now warning that it poses a risk of our own extinction.


A tool as simple as a rock can be used by an otter to crack open a shell, or it can be used by a human to start a war. Technology comes down to intention. And if necessity really is the driver of invention, then shouldn’t we be applying all available innovations to climate progress? Is it possible for technology to be used to make us more human, rather than less so? Our ingenuity can be seen as isolating our species, yes, but it also connects us to the very spirit of mother nature. After all, what is evolution if not an engine of ingenuity—a force of creativity?

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