Due to an evolutionary arms race , highly intelligent dire wolves evolved on my world. Their vocal cords have developed to produce beyond human ranges of sound , and have become more social , gathering in packs over 300 strong. They have even developed a complex language , and have naming systems for different members of their species. They now have all of the attributes that they need to develop a civilization save for one , prehensile limbs.

My question is : is any sort of technological advancement ( even that of tool use ) possible in a species with no prehensile limbs?

  • $\begingroup$ you may want to have a look here : some of the tool using animals on our planet are birds, so they should qualify? $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    May 23, 2016 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ A slightly different question: Already being the undisputed apex predator in their environment, what would they gain? Remember, in evolution, it has to be an immediate gain (or at least must not be an immediate disadvantage) in order to catch on $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    May 23, 2016 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Burki Basically , the idea is that there was an evolutionary arms race , the prey of the wolves became larger and lived in larger groups, so the wolves gathered in larger packs and gained intelligence . The wolves had to come up with more and more complex plans to single out , separate , and take down their increasingly large and herd dwelling prey $\endgroup$
    – user15036
    May 23, 2016 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ You have a vaguely plausible explanation for why they got smart, which is all you really need. Do you want them to have tech or not? It's possible to come up with a scenario where they could, (somewhat believably) but it's quite tricky. $\endgroup$
    – The Nate
    May 23, 2016 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with @Burki, humans developed tools and weapons in part to compensate for biological limitations (no claws or horns etc.) so what would motivate an apex predator to develop any technology? In our world sharks are reasonably intelligent, but have not evolved significantly for millions of years. You need some environmental factor that necessitates or rewards the development of technology (or at least the evolutionary changes such as prehensile limbs that would allow it to develop). $\endgroup$ May 24, 2016 at 11:09

5 Answers 5


When you say "prehensile limbs," does that mean you are excluding all appendages that could easily substitute for human-like hands (e.g. monkey tails, bird talons, etc)? I am going to assume yes, because otherwise your question would not make any sense.

If the species itself lacks the fine manipulation necessary to use tools, then they could not develop the skill to build and use tools. At least not on an individual basis.

If they have the ability to hold objects, such as with a pair of jaws, then they could potentially figure out how to work together to build and use tools to compensate for their individual lack of prehensile appendages. Each "pack" (for lack of a better term) would act as a pair of hands. As a result, their society would probably be much, much more collectivist than our own because they are so dependent on one another to accomplish tasks that would be trivial for a human being. At the extreme end individual packs might develop a distributed gestalt consciousness a la the Tines in Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep.

Or they might domesticate another species that does have prehensile limbs. In which case they might develop along lines where much of their energy is devoted to developing means to better control and direct their laborers, potentially engaging in much more extreme forms of selective breeding than humans ever have. Since all labor would be done by their "pets" (for lack of a better word, since slavery doesn't really apply), then they themselves might atrophy physically in order to devote more processing power to manipulating their pets.

  • $\begingroup$ I recall a story along the lines of your 3rd paragraph, where the intelligent unicorns tamed chimps or something like that. And all types of parasite-takes-control stories are really along the same lines, right? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 4, 2016 at 3:22

The first step to developing technology of any kind would be starting to make use of tools. Your dire wolves would need to be in a situation where they develop tool use for increased biological fitness. (I know of examples of monkeys of all kinds and crows who developed tool use, but none of wolves. What kind of tools would wolves need in the wild?).

Once you've got tool use established, you can start extrapolating the resulting technology from that. (i.e.: depends on what kind of tools they use). Most likely, they will never get much beyond very basic tool use since they both lack the dexterity to create finely crafted things, and the need for them since nature gifted them with plenty of natural weaponry and a warm coat. They could have fire (or at least have the ability to not let a burning fire go out and feed it with more wood), but pottery? I doubt it. Unless their forepaws evolve to give at least a bit better dexterity than a typical wolf paw.

Stone tools like knives? What would they need them since their teeth are sharp enough and they can defend themselves well enough? and anyway, how would they get them shaped?

What they might have toolwise is something to make food storage better. Perhaps they know that burying meat in salt-rich soil preserves it better than in regular soil? Then again, wolves are also capable of eating pretty spoiled meat, so...


Let's take a broad look at the history of technology in humanity and apply it to wolves, and how they might get there:


Current state, wolves on earth are reputably adept at this.


Agriculture is the first step towards any civilization, as a surplus of food is necessary to create a class of non-food-producing specialists capable of handling needs like governance, health care, crafting tools and so on. Assuming climate conditions allow for agriculture (predictable seasons, no ice ages etc.), hyper-intelligent wolves capable of complex communication (among each other at least) shouldn't have too much trouble coordinating each other by corralling/enslaving other animals into doing their work for them. Smaller animals like squirrels can be used to plant seeds and larger animals like oxen can till the soil and carry water.


Ok, this is where things get tricky. To industrialize even vaguely like the way humans did, the wolves will need to A: extract and refine new sources of energy, and B: use those new energy sources to drive non-muscle-based machinery, which decouples the production of food from the production of mechanical energy (since mechanized farming is far more efficient than using muscle power).

First, let's look at resources. It is worth noting that in America's 19th century, the dominant source of energy was wood, not coal. Certain creatures from Earth, like beavers, can create dams, so perhaps a degree of hydropower is in order (but keep in mind that hydro is BY FAR the MOST DANGEROUS form of energy creation because dam failures can be catastrophic in ways a nuclear meltdown can barely hold a gamma wave to). So let's say the enslavement-of-other-creatures method works well enough here for basic tasks like cutting down trees and carrying them at the very least.

Now for mechanical energy. Again, this is a rough one since wolves will be limited in their tools and their ability to create more tools. This might end up being the bottleneck for productivity, since if the limit to dexterity is a jaw and a paw, it will take a significant amount of wolves to craft any kind of tool, let alone a steam engine. But let's consider something else...

Information Age

What if the wolves leapfrog the steampunk era and go straight into cyberpunk? After all, the principles and physics of computing are the same no matter where you are, so if the wolves can reliably generate electricity and make some kind of Minecraft-like basic computer, they ought to be able to shrink it over further generations. The further they advance in their technologies, the more possible it may be that they could create machines that can, in turn, create more tools and machines that are useful to them, perhaps in the style of a 3D printer.

So there you have it. A bit glossed-over, but a somewhat reasonable path from hunter-gatherer to information age for any land-dwelling social species capable of withstanding elements and communicating complex concepts to each other.

*Physics work a bit differently underwater, so that probably explains why dolphins haven't conquered us yet.


Tool use certainly, corvids are particularly good at this.

Whether they could get further technological advancement is questionable, from there on it's dependent on control of fire which is hard without a prehensile limb. You're limited to "found items", or found items with minor modification.

  • $\begingroup$ But the crow (New Calidonian Crow in particular) is indeed capable of grasping. Arguably, the neck is not a "limb", but look at swans etc. It brings us more up against "what the OP really meant?" $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 4, 2016 at 3:25
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz, I don't believe that classes as "grasping" in the technical sense. The tongue could be almost prehensile, but not a beak. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jun 4, 2016 at 10:01

I'd like to run with the idea of using "pets"and expand upon it, based on a few observations of wolves and dogs.

I've seen a study on TV where a piece of meat was placed in an inaccessible location, under the metal-mesh crate.

The (tame/socialized) wolf tried to get it, persistently, without success.

The dog noted the situation and asked his human to take care of it. The dog put no wasted effort into digging or biting the metal, but clearly got the man's attention, and alternated eye contact between the man and the goal, to communicate that he was wanted at that location.

At home, I recall a new puppy decided to purposfully toss his ball under a hutch where he couldn't reach it, to make Dad go down on the floor and get it for him. Which was the real goal: go get Dad's head down to floor level.

Dogs have evolved to rely on humans to get their goals met, and even as infants will instinctively manipulate and exploit the known behavior of other lifeforms in their environment.

It's thought that wolves domesticated themselves, finding a niche among primitive humans.

Well, what if wolves (as in your plot) found other species that had resources they could exploit, but happened to not be intelligent? Some other animal that had a social nature and produced communal garbage piles and were omnivorous. Eventually the wolves cooperated in hunting and gathering, and formed combined packs which were more capable than either alone.

The wolves quickly evolved to make use of the other animals as tools, instictively understanding that they do things we can't, and can be used on purpose. Which is exactly what wolves did in real life.

The other creatures, weasles or squirrels or whatever, quickly evolved to rely on the wolves to fill certain roles, including making decisions. That is, what wolves did to men in this department, the weasles did to the smart wolves. So thus coukd really happen: they adapt as it's advantageous to let the intelligent leader (of a different species) make tactical decisions and engage in planning.

Perhaps other animals join the mixed pack over time. Or, now on the road to civilization, the wolves domesticate other species.

The real question is how well can the wolves control the "hands" of the symbiotes? If it's just high-level management of instictive or trained tasks (like how a human directs a canine sheapard), it would be hard to made unique detailed motions.


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