GOMA, Congo - A male gorilla in a Congo zoo has become adept with a Bridgeport milling machine and Newhall lathe, according to his keepers. "The quality of parts he's turning out is really quite good," according to a machinist who has monitored the gorilla's use of the tools.
Apes, birds, and sea otters have occasionally been spotted using sticks to dig ants out of trees, or smashing clams between rocks, but the use of rotating machinery, traditionally used to construct other tools, is a first, according to June Itzallgood, primate trainer.
It has long been believed that the use of power tools was restricted to higher order primates, such as engineers, chimpanzees, and unclassified species such as junior Bushmen. Then, keepers at Diane Fossey's zoo accidentally left the machine shop door open, and a sprig of bannanas sitting by the lathe, which had been left on.
Adjusting the lathe's feed, selecting the proper tool, and cutting depth has considered among the most complex tool-use behaviors. But then lured by more bannanas, the ape showed that he knew how to turn on the milling machine, and if he couldn't actually use it, he at least could dial the table around to where the bit cut open a bannana. "The big guy just squealed with delight, even though the nanner went flying."
"Frankley, we are astounded, given what we know about tool use by autoworkers, said primatologist Patrick Melanoma at his Goma office. There's really no reason NOT to outsource shop work if you can keep an adequate supply of bannans around. And if one of these guys loses a finger, or hand, we'll, he'll just start using his foot. We're talking no Employee's Comp whatsoever!
The scientist said the finding indicates that complex tool use could have its origins earlier in the evolutionary chain - among ancestors common to both humans and their closest relatives, such as shade tree mechanics, and your uncle Buck.
The "ToolTime" guerilla has been living in the shop for a year, since local authorities confiscated his dial calipers and DeWalt Cordless drill, which he'd repeatedly been caught using to drill out the locks on the other primates cages. "Now that he's got an outlet for his mechanical leanings, he's pretty much leaving the rest of them locked up. We do have to search 'im for bubble blowers and homemade keys now and then, though."
"Very often the use of tools is triggered by certain needs. It seems that apes have only little needs to use tools in the wild," Breuer said. But here in captivity, they carefully machine part after part after part. You can see the satisfaction in their eyes, especially when a part comes out all shiny."