Would quadrupedal tetrapod species be able to utilise complex tools to develop further technologically?

(Complex tools meaning purposefully constructed and shaped to perform a task, for example humans making an axe, shaped for their hands, in order to help with cutting wood)

Of course, the tools would need to be shaped especially for their form. I just wonder if it'd even be possible for a quadruped to, say, build permanent shelters (like a wooden house).
This isn't even considering a more complex technological construction, like, how a bear-like animal makes something as small and fine as a computer without significant physiological changes.

Of course, I'm not being anthropocentric here -- I'm fully aware of the hundreds of examples of fine tool use in animals on Earth today. I just don't know if those animals, given enough resources, could accomplish the same things Humans have that brought us to where we are technologically, culturally, and hierarchically today.

I do think that they could become equally technologically advanced, but not in the same way that we are mainly because of their physiological characteristics. Let's use the bears as an example again. Although they have been observed using 'tools', I highly doubt they could do something like making a specialised weapon for hunting. I more believe that they would have to use highly shaped tools that could fit in their mouths as their paws don't grasp the same way that a hand with an opposable thumb does. They'd need some sort of incentive to use these tools, too. Would they be better at catching prey?

This brings the consideration of how the bears would learn to build a shelter. How would they create fire to cook food?
After thousands of years, Humans learned to cook food. This greatly increased nutrition for us, which let us expend more energy in developing larger brains.
How would the bears accomplish this? How would they eventually learn to make industry? Or are they permanently trapped in this pre-industrial age due to their physiology?

Sure, they could learn to utilise their environment. Maybe they use their claws to weave. Maybe they make nets with it and catch fish. I just don't know where they can go afterwards. How do they make metals?

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WB:SE! I also would like an answer to this question, as it happens to be of interest to me. I would recommend in order not to have the question closed editing it just to make sure that there's no misunderstanding about the question you're asking - the community can be pretty stringent about the one-question-per-post policy. I think that after a little edit this could be an awesome question though (and certainly one which I'd like to answer). $\endgroup$ Commented May 17 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ @controlgroup I've made some changes to hopefully narrow it down! Thanks!! The main question is how they would go on the path to where Humans are now -- we've constructed a niche so deep for ourselves that we rely on technology to survive. Without technologies, without tools, we fail in every matchup in the wild. How do quadrupedal species become so technologically dependent that they begin evolving themselves to make up for their specialisation? Humans have reached this point -- why can't another species? $\endgroup$
    – Aster
    Commented May 17 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ Does the quadrupedal nature of your species mean that they don't have hands? At its base quadrupedal only means that the life form has four feet, it doesn't necessarily mean it only has those limbs, it may also have any number of arms or hands, in which case they could use exactly the same tools as Humans. $\endgroup$
    – Mathaddict
    Commented May 17 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ I think the assumption is that “quadrupedal” refers to something like a cat - four legs, no arms. Otherwise the question would be quite trivial. $\endgroup$ Commented May 17 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ "Complex tools meaning purposefully constructed and shaped to perform a task" Crows and ravens already do this using nothing but their beaks and a foot to hold the tool down while they shape and trim a stick for probing etc, any quadruped can be imagined doing the same with teeth and a foot "with such as an axe, shaped for the hands, in order to help with cutting wood" do they have hands then? if they don't have hands why would they make an axe that needs a hand to wield? or have they got particularly flexible necks that they might wield it gripped in the mouth, or trunks? $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented May 17 at 16:12

4 Answers 4


Possible, but bipedal makes more sense

Quadrupedal species use all four of their limbs to run, so they evolve into something that's suitable for running - hooves, or paws. For complex tool use, you need to have complex manipulators, like fingers (opposable thumbs is also really handy). Such a limb can be used for running, but isn't necessarily the best for it - you could run on all fours but it would be pretty uncomfortable.

On the other hand, when you're using your complex tools, you still need to use two limbs to stand on. I suppose you could use tools while sitting down, which gives you four 'hands' to manipulate tools with, rather than two. But while having two hands instead of one makes a huge difference, four instead of two I don't think is that much better. On the other hand (hehe) a huge drawback of using all four limbs for tool manipulation is not being able to move. So you could sit down and craft a pretty good axe, but if you had to use that axe to defend yourself from an attacker, you really need to be able to move while swinging it.

So the best setup is to have two limbs you use for standing or moving, and two limbs for holding and manipulating tools. In which case, they'll probably evolve into specialised limbs for standing and moving (like human legs and feet) and specialised limbs for using tools (like human arms and hands). So you end up with a bipedal species.

  • $\begingroup$ The four limbs could be used as a replacement for the fingers/ opposable thumbs. Not that good for delicate work but similar dexterity and more force for bigger objects that 2 hands. The disadvantage of not walking at the same time of course still applies. $\endgroup$
    – quarague
    Commented May 18 at 7:07

Good question! For example, take dragons. Common staple of fantasy (and on occasion science fiction). Dragons have the particular case of having fire breath, making them kind of overpowered evolutionarily (conveniently, fire breath is such a complex system that it would never evolve naturally, so we can discount it). Still, they’re an example of a species that can show intelligence but is quadrupedal without limbs specifically devoted to “grab” and “hold” and “write” and “use tool” like humans.

The issue I think isn’t necessarily that species like these can’t use tools, it’s just getting to the point where they choose to. Using your front legs to manipulate objects in the world is a big step up from using the claws at the end of them to stab prey, but mechanically it isn’t difficult to do. A dragon (or other token quadrupedal species) could simply stand on its hind legs, using a tail for balance if it has one, and then the front legs are free to use tools, build complex things, and type angry comments into computers.

The impetus to actually build tools would probably come from a place of having already dominated the ecosystem and no longer needing to use the front legs as heavily for attack. A dragon, sufficiently intelligent, will find that they are already an apex predator, and will learn to use their front legs for something other than attacking prey which they can already do very efficiently. Non-apex predators might still develop this, like we humans did (against any other animal, we lose, but we are bipedal and can built sharp pointy things), as a way to evade and even attack predators.

So it’s mechanically possible. Then, all we need to do is build gradually more-advanced tools with our current set, and bam! Modern era!

The issue with being quadrupedal is that you don’t have arms to carry stuff with. Then again, it’s still not impossible to carry things around with you: a dragon species could make simple vests with which to carry tools, or need be, simply walk on their hind legs with their tails for balance.

Besides, once you get to the technologically-“advanced” era (i.e. tech level of 1000 B.C.E.), members of your society will probably be smart enough to build tools to carry tools, and by then, we’re out of the developing-complex-tools phase and into the expanding-to-become-the-dominant-species phase.

Ultimately, it’s probably just as easy for quadrupeds to develop tools as for bipeds. Supply impetus to do so, and a species will find a way - no matter how many legs.


If the question is IF: If they are intelligent, I think so

If the question is HOW: with lot of time and in ways very difficult to imagine

It's a very long process taking millions of years, the oldest "tools" found are from 2.6 millions years ago:


As you can read from the article, it starts very slow and then picks up pace.

On of the first things that sped up technology advancment is the creation of bigger societies. Those create because of various reasons but agriculture is one on the main ones. As societies are born knowledge can much more easily be passed down through generations and not get lost.

How it appens really depends on the animal. I'll try to take intelligent bears for examples. I can't see why an intelligent society of bears would not be able to cultivate and raise animals or bees.

No problem for them carring small logs in their mouth, or rolling stones. Just this could be enough to build moderately lasting shelters. Early accomplishment are made more with numbers and cooperation than with technology.

And from there they could start to slowly improve.

Tools created by bears would be vastly different from ours as we build tools to be used with hands. A bear tool for cutting tree would not be an axe for sure. What tools would they create? How would they build them? How could they transition into metal age? and from there? really hard to answer. It took humans generation upon generations to make the first steps.

On how and why bears could become intelligent it's another (and complex) question but you can find some info on wiki, it seems to rotate around the fac t that we started to create societies and that intelligence was more and more important in sexual selection.



There are multiple ways.

Standing up just temporarily

Repurpose the front legs as hands. Humans did this but actually turned out to be so useful that the front legs became arms, essentially giving up the idea of running on all four legs.
Other species have gone only halfway. Bears, gorillas, cats.
I believe these stayed quadrupedal because it would too important for everyday survival to keep four legs; the forelimbs would have to serve both running and manipulation purposes so it's not perfect for either, but nature is about "good enough" anyway, not about perfection.

Develop some body extension into a hand replacement

Elephant trunks.
Prehensile tails.

Prehensile whatever. Skin can do amazing things, like grow into horns; so why not something prehensile? Even bones can participate, e.g. antlers that aren't shed, there you have skin-covered bone outgrowths, one could have cartilage as well. It would not be bone from the normal evolutionary body plan, but appendages are not really such a big deal for evolution.

A somewhat unsavory possibility, suitable only for a somewhat unsavory readership: prehensile penises.

Symbiotic relationship

The intelligent species been in symbiosis with something like oxpeckers.
Give the oxpeckers a reason to develop, say, dog-like intelligence and dog-like social instincts, and they can be trained for all sorts of amazing tricks.
Give the really intelligent species an incentive to develop planning capabilities. E.g. the parasites could be complicated to access, the intelligent ones need to instruct the oxpeckers pretty specifically how and where to peck, or pry out, etc.
Once the base species develops an interest in teaching their oxpeckers "cute tricks", that can quickly evolve into actually useful toolbuilding, tool use instructing, and it's done.


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