Humans might be able to brag about convection ovens, molecular gastronomy, and Julia Child, but we’re not the only animals that can be clever with our food.
For instance, there is a small population of macaques that live on a Japanese island called Koshima have invented a way to season their food.
Back in the 1950s, scientists lured the monkeys with sweet potatoes in order to observe them more closely. The monkeys quickly learned to rinse dirt off of the potatoes in fresh water.
After that, one macaque began washing already cleaned sweet potatoes in the ocean, and gradually the rest of the troop adapted the practice as well. Washing the potatoes an extra time in salt water didn’t seem to be in service of cleaning, so scientists think that the habit may be the macaque’s way of spicing up their meal.
“This washing of food may have some nutritional benefit such as adding salt,” the University of Michigan’s museum of zoology noted on its website.
Another monkey – this one a South American resident – has an ingenious nut-cracking strategy. The brown tufted capuchins likes to snack on seeds from the nut palm. To overcome the nut palm’s thick shells, the monkeys check for the ripest seeds, tear the fibrous husks off with their teeth, then leave them to dry in the sun for a week or so.
A capuchin will then take a dry nut to a large flat rock and pound it with a hard rock to crack it.
Japanese crows let humans do the nut-cracking for them – or, more accurately, they let cars driven by humans do the work. The birds drop nuts onto busy city streets, where eventually a passing car pulverizes the shell. Some especially smart crows drop their nuts in pedestrian crosswalks, which allows them to retrieve their meal without getting run over.
Sometimes a potentially toxic meal can be the most delectable; just ask any sushi aficionado salivating over a plate of fugu. But it takes special handling to deal with food that can kill you, so many predator will avoid prey that seems dodgy – a tactic that some animals exploit by copying the coloring of other, truly poisonous creatures.
But the shrike, a medium-sized grey bird, has developed its own technique for safely downing the poisonous lubber grasshopper. Shrikes typically spear their prey on thorns after they catch it, which allows them to both store up reserves of food and position the meal for tearing into bite-sized chunks. When it catches a lubber grasshopper, the shrike leaves the insect hanging for one or two days, which is enough time for the poisonous compounds in the grasshopper to break down.
At least crows and monkeys can’t claim to be able to make a soufflé (but then again, neither can some humans). However, people shouldn’t rest easy on their current mastery of the kitchen -- the cooking gap between animals and humans is far from insurmountable.
A bonobo named Kanzi that lives at an ape refuge in Iowa reportedly began mimicking his keepers’ habit of building campfires, and has now progressed to lighting barbeques and flipping burgers. His handlers say they never encouraged him to help make fires, and that he began imitating them of his own volition.
How long before Kanzi competes on ‘Iron Chef’? For the sake of the human competitors, let’s hope the secret ingredient isn’t bananas.