Each morning, a nametag would turn up missing. They went missing at some point during the nights, when nobody was around to notice. Each time one went missing, of course, it would be replaced. Nametags were essential in Bradley Philip Smith's place of business. Every time he replaced a lost nametag with a new one, the new nametag would eventually disappear too. It definitely could not have been a coincidence. "Why," I imagine he must have thought, "would someone want to steal nametags?" Eventually, Smith had an idea: he would set up a video camera to catch the thief in the act!

It wasn't long before Smith caught the nametag bandit, a fellow named Sterling, red-handed. Or perhaps red-pawed would be the better term. Sterling was a dingo. Dingoes are wild dogs found only in Australia, descended from wolves as all dogs are, but not quite domesticated either. Like domestic dogs, or Canis lupus familiaris, dingoes are technically a subspecies of the gray wolf, Canis lupus, which is why they're known as Canis lupus dingo. It is thought that dingoes first came to Australia millenia ago, along with humans, when they were relatively more wolf-like than dogs are today. The different environmental pressures in the Australian outback, where they were separated from other members of the genus Canis as well as from most humans allowed the dingo to evolve along a somewhat different route than the canids we know today as Fido or Rover.

Sterling is a pure dingo (some are the result of interbreeding between dingoes and domestic dogs) who was born and lived at the Dingo Discovery and Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia. How could Sterling have been the culprit, though? The nametags were attached to the enclosures at about five and a half feet (1.7 meters) off the ground, which was too high for Sterling to reach, even when jumping. How could he have done it? To increase the possibility that he might reveal his methods, the staff at the Centre attached a bit of food to the enclosure at the same height as the nametags. But Sterling mostly ignored the nametag as well as the food. That was when Smith and the rest of the staff decided to set up their video camera.

First, he tried to jump for the food, but as the staff expected, it was too high for him. What happened next was remarkable. Sterling walked over to a small table that was in his enclosure, bit down on one of the legs, and walked backwards, dragging the table with him. In all, he moved the table about two meters. Then he jumped up onto the table, but he was still just a bit too short. He figured out that he could use his front paws to "walk up" the mesh fence so that he could bring his mouth close enough to the food to retrieve it. It took him only two tries before he was able to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

It is important to note that Sterling had never been trained or encouraged to display this sort of behavior. It was spontaneous, and importantly, it was the first documented example of spontaneous tool use in a canid. It is by now well-known that non-human primates flexibly and spontaneously use tools, as do corvids and cetaceans. While dogs are known to be incredibly skillful at social-cognitive tasks, at times even outperforming chimpanzees, they do not spontaneously use tools. And while wolves can engage in some incredibly complex behaviors, especially when it comes to cooperative hunting or non-social problem-solving tasks, they too do not spontaneously use tools.

It is worth being clear about precisely what "tool use" means. Smith and colleagues rely on the following definition of tool use:

The external employment of an unattached or manipulable attached environmental object to alter more efficiently the form, position, or condition of another object, another organism, or the user itself, when the user holds and directly manipulates the tool during or prior to use and is responsible for the proper and effective orientation of the tool.

In other words, tool use occurs when an animal uses an object found in the environment in order to modify another object, another animal, or itself. Further, tool use requires that the animal directly manipulate the item in a fairly precise way, whether by feet, hands, mouth, or some other means (one can imagine an elephant manipulating a tool with its trunk, for example). This means that if the table had been in an optimal position to begin with, Sterling could have jumped onto the table to retrieve the food, but this alone would not have been considered tool use. Sterling had to manipulate the table itself to achieve his goal.

It should be noted that this was not Sterling's first transgression, so to speak. Some time before the string of nametag thefts, Sterling used a similar tactic to escape from his enclosure. In that instance, he rolled a meter-long barrel until it stopped against the two meter high fence. By jumping first onto the barrel, he was able to jump over the fence and into another enclosure. His motivation, apparently, was to spend some quality time with a female dingo. It was breeding season, after all. Would you blame him?

For more on smart canids:

Wolves Are Smart, But Dogs Look Back

Setting His Own Dinner Table: Spontaneous Tool Use by a Dingo - by Paul Norris

Also, see photos of the dingoes who live at the Dingo Discovery and Research Centre.

Smith, B., Appleby, R., & Litchfield, C. (2012). Spontaneous tool-use: An observation of a dingo (Canis dingo) using a table to access an out-of-reach food reward Behavioural Processes, 89 (3), 219-224 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2011.11.004

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Jarrod Amoore

Didn't catch the reference? Here you go: Dingoes Ate My Baby.