Yao honey-hunter Orlando Yassene holds a wild greater honeyguide female (temporarily captured for research) in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique © Claire N. Spottiswoode

Honey hunt demonstrates rare human-bird collaboration

Yao tribesmen of Mozambique get by with a little help from their feathered friends in the search for honey.

Collaboration can be key for undertaking a tricky task. In the animal kingdom an important form of cooperation is mutualism, where two different species work together to complete a task that they both benefit from. But recently published research has confirmed a rare example involving animals and humans in the depths of Mozambique, where tribesmen searching for honey and the species of bird Indicator indicator (also known as the greater honeyguide) work together for a tasty reward.

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It can be difficult for members of the Yao tribe to find honey as the beehives are often hidden high in the treetops. Using a trick that has been passed down through generations, they summon I. indicator by letting out a distinctive brrr-hm cry. Once present, I. indicator lives up to its name, flitting from treetop to treetop and indicating to the tribesmen where the beehives are. The bird itself loves to feast upon the beeswax within, but is unable to crack open the hives to enjoy it. However, when the Yao tribesmen harvest the honey they leave the beeswax behind, with the partnership providing both parties with a scrumptious snack.

© BBSRC

To confirm this relationship, researchers from The University of Cambridge trailed the honey-hunters. They discovered that 75 per cent of guiding events led to the successful discovery of at least one bees’ nest. They also showed that it was the specific brrr-hm call attracting their feathered friends by recording the call with two controls and walking through the forest playing them back. Birds were much more likely to respond to the brrr-hm cry than the others, with the call significantly increasing the chance of being guided towards a honey pot with respect to the control sounds. They also found that the birds would lose interest in the hunt if the alternative calls were made, and would only continue if the brrr-hm returned.

“This suggests that honeyguides attach meaning and respond appropriately to this signal that advertises peoples’ willingness to cooperate,” says Claire Spottiswoode of the University of Cambridge, who led the study. “So it seems to be a two-way conversation between our own species and a wild animal, from which both partners benefit.”

While in Britain the dog may be man’s best friend, if you’re hanging around in Mozambique and fancy a sweet treat, you may want to consider greater honeyguide as a forest companion. If you scratch their back, they may scratch yours.


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