For a highly intelligent avian dinosaur whose grasping and manipulating appendages have all but vanished, there are options : for the species to evolve beaks that are better fine manipulators, or continue to writhe in abject mediocrity. So the question is - which type of beak might the birds evolve to serve as fine manipulators in place of hands?

Examples of fine manipulators - Primate hands are fine manipulators. Claws are NOT fine manipulators because they only have two points of contact, making them inherently less dexterous

How do you make a head and beak with only two points of contact more dexterous like a limb with 3 or more points of contact ?

  • $\begingroup$ I have just one word for you... just one word... Zoidberg. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Mar 15, 2018 at 0:20

6 Answers 6



I see various options:

  • Beak divided in multiple partially patch-covered 'lip/fingers'.
  • Precise prehensile tongue.
  • Fingers in wings.
  • Use wings to walk to free the already hand-like feet.
  • A combination of the above.

Manipulator beak

Seeing as the always-mentioned crows are able to create tools even to make other tools using mainly their beaks, I don't see this as far-fetched as other answers suggest. So,

which type of beak might the birds evolve to serve as fine manipulators in place of hands?

Like this answer suggests, a softer patch of tissue halfway along their beak would certainly help the gripping, without losing the sharp and hard usefulness.

But why stop there? This tissue would give them some lips of the sort. A more complex control (for example, closing one side of the mouth while keeping the other open) of these 'lips' would help even more with the manipulation, and could lead to a physical split of each 'lip' into two (or more) half-lips. So they would end up with a partially tissued beak divided into four (two up and two down) 'lip' parts. Those would really look (and act) like sharp-clawed fingers! If you add a precise prehensile tongue, that should do quite the trick. It could even allow for a simultaneous use of the mouth for manipulating and eating (with two 'finger/lips' holding something and the other two eating).

Of course, this is quite a weird approach (but my favorite!). So let's take a look at others.

Wing fingers

As pointed out by bowlturner in this answer, some fingers in the wings could be used for hands (after all, they ARE hands). I would go for the pterodactyl wing which gives more fingers and it also has a more similar bone structure to the bird wing:

(source: ncse.com)

This approach, however, leaves the hands quite useless while in flight. And carrying loads in the wings in flight doesn't sound like a very good idea.


Bird feet, of course, are already quite good for manipulating. Many current birds use them as such.

Maybe there's a little room for improvement. Pads in the upper pads of the fingers, for example, could allow them to walk while holding something, which would be useful, althoguh probably not very practical.

A more... let's say ridiculous approach would be using the wings for walking on land, leaving the feet free to act as hands. After all, wings on land are not very useful, so you've got two unused limbs while underusing two very useful others. Those fingers suggested in the previous section would come in handy when walking on trees. One problem would be takeoff and landing, but could be solved by switching to the feet just for that moment, or taking off by dropping from a height.

All of them

Lastly, you can always combine two or more of the above. Don't be afraid of doing something weird. Mother Nature has come with very weird stuff herself.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Ray, excellent first answer. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 20:07

The issue with this is the rigidity of the beak. Beaks evolved from snouts as dinosaurs that lived in the trees and then became avian needed them to do things like strip bark from trees to get at insects, or crack open nuts and seeds for food. All of those things required them to have rigidity along the length of the beak, as well as a hard point to do the cracking or grasping.

A way around this would be where a dinosaur evolved a softer patch of tissue halfway along their beak, on either the top, bottom or both, where the beak closes. Imagine a U-shaped section of the bottom part of the beak that was soft, spongy tissue with the rest of the beak being regular hardened keratin. This would mean that they would be able to grasp sticks in their beak without worrying about losing them due to twisting forces, and if they had a strong tongue they would also be able to have a limited range of movement on the rudimentary tool. This would also retain the strength along the length and in the tip of the beak for the regular jobs that a beak evolved for.

The flexibility of primate hands is very important for grasping and manipulating tools, but soft pads are also important for gripping tools without slipping. The beak solution above might get them some way towards making a further leap in intelligence, but I think hands might be the only way you truly develop technology, not just rudimentary tool use.


There are several issues which make this something of a non starter.

First off, a beak is an adaptation so a bird can have hard cutting surfaces like teeth without the weight of a jawbone and teeth. Very early birds did indeed have teeth, but had essentially lost them by the end of the Jurassic era, and by the end of the Cretaceous, I don't know of any examples of birds with teeth. (I may be wrong about this, but any remaining birds with teeth in the Cretaceous era were very rare indeed).

As hard cutting implements, they only offer two points of contact (or four if you go right across the mouth). A beak would resemble a crab's claw in terms of how it could grasp and manipulate an object.

The next objection is the distance between the eyes of the bird and the beak itself. Put a pencil in your mouth crossways the way a bird can hold a twig, then try to look at it in fine detail. Predatory birds have evolved front facing eyes adapted to seeking out prey at great distances. In human terms they are far sighted. I suspect the adaptation to have clearly focused vision to go from seeking prey from high altitudes to looking at something at the "end of your nose" might be a lot of work for limited return. Once again, look at a macro lens on an SLR type camera, then a long distance lens. Now look at very highly developed zoom lenses which can go from Macro to long range. The complexity, weight and price of such a lens is comparable to the amount of metabolic tweaking needed to evolve an organic analogue. (As a BTW, birds like ducks would never be able to evolve such an organ since their eyes are more to the sides of their heads to look for threats).

Finally, since there is only one beak, the amount of manipulation possible would be very limited. Even the science fictional "Puppeteers" from Larry Niven's "Known Space" cycle had two heads ending in a mouth adapted as a manipulator each (hence two "hands"). I never found this totally convincing, since the Puppeteer would have difficulty seeing what it was doing when working with its "hands".


In the real world, this isn't even necessary. Dinosaurs, like every other living species on Earth, adapted pre existing structures which could change with evolutionary pressure. Tyrannosaurids could potentially have had evolved to grow longer and larger arms, provided that it gave the creature some advantages that outweighed the extra size and bulk. A Tyrannosaurid evolved to "fish" might regrow arms to scoop fish out of the water, for example. Since you speak of beaks, a flightless bird like a Terror Bird has stub wings, and the potential to regrow them should this somehow become advantageous. An evolving Terror Bird with greater intelligence and a capacity to manipulate objects with repurposed wings (which in the long run are very repurposed fish fins) would seem to be where you are going with this.

Inside of a wing are very long finger bones to create the lifting surface (covered with feathers), they can scale back into hand like structures, while the beak and head are reproportioned to deal with the shifting centre of gravity and the ever decreasing need to kill and carve up prey with the beak (hominids gradually reduced their jaw lines since crushing nuts with stone hammers and cutting meat with flint knives was much easier and more efficient than chewing through it).

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    $\begingroup$ Note that the New Caledonien Crow can focus close up and see to use the tool near the tip of its beak. It is one of several adaptations toward tool use by its beak. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 2:33

Well, given that beaks are hard, the solution is obvious:

Have the avian dinosaurs use their closed beaks for breaking stuff (like other dinosaur's heads), the open beak for grasping (between lower and upper beak-bit) and their tongues as delicate manipulators.

bird with odd tongue

You can then go ahead and fork the tongue or whatever you want.

enter image description here


How do you make a head and beak with only two points of contact more dexterous like a limb with 3 or more points of contact?

You don't.

Birds can do many things with their beaks today. But beaks are not an end all be all for item manipulation. Nor are they likely to develop into such. More than likely the birds will use other forms of manipulation to get the desired outcome.

Take parrots for example. Parrots will hold something in their feet while they simultaneously use their beak to work it as well. Many other birds use their feet as an auxiliary manipulator. enter image description here

On top of that, if you expect 'evolution' to work it's magic to help with tool use, there is a very good chance that a finger or two could 'grow' from the 'wrist' of the wing. Like bats or pterodactyl. So between feet and 'thumbs' and the beak they could have quit a range of abilities. However to get something that is very manipulable for a mouth, it won't really be a beak any more, maybe a trunk. On top of that would it make sense to have your main manipulator the entry point into your digestive system? and so close to your eyes? Even an elephant's trunk is long, and is a nose not a mouth.

pterodactylenter image description here

There are even many people who either were born without arms or lost them. They use their feet as hands too. This didn't even take evolution.

enter image description hereenter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ Additionally: a parrot's tongue has a bone in it, allowing them to use their tongue exactly how we use our thumb. $\endgroup$
    – ArmanX
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 17:46

with some skull tweaking, the beak could possibly maybe be split in 3 or 4 pieces, opening up like a flower.

  • $\begingroup$ Hi Bumbles, welcome to Worldbuilding.SE. I'd recommend taking the tour. We usually like answers to be a bit more detailed. There's quite some substance that you could add to your answer to make it a good one. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 5:33
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    $\begingroup$ Agreed. You've got a good basis for an answer. In order for it to survive being severely down-voted or deleted, please improve upon it! As it stands, this is barely a comment, and not at all a proper answer. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 5:36

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