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Humans and wild birds collaborate to get precious resources of food

Copyright: Dr Claire Spottiswoode/University of Cambridge
News from: University of Cambridge

By following honeyguides, a species of bird, people in Africa are able to locate bees’ nests to harvest honey. Research now reveals that humans use special calls to solicit the help of honeyguides and that honeyguides actively recruit appropriate human partners. This relationship is a rare example of cooperation between humans and free-living animals.

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Humans have trained a range of species to help them find food: examples are dogs, falcons and cormorants. These animals are domesticated or taught to cooperate by their owners. Human-animal collaboration in the wild is much rarer. But it has long been known that, in many parts of Africa, people and a species of wax-eating bird called the greater honeyguide work together to find wild bees’ nests which provide a valuable resource to them both.

Honeyguides give a special call to attract people’s attention, then fly from tree to tree to indicate the direction of a bees’ nest. We humans are useful collaborators to honeyguides because of our ability to subdue stinging bees with smoke and chop open their nest, providing wax for the honeyguide and honey for ourselves.

Copyright: Dr Claire Spottiswoode/University of Cambridge
Honey provides a vital source of calories in the honey-hunters’ diet. Copyright: Dr Claire Spottiswoode/University of Cambridge

Experiments carried out in the Mozambican bush now show that this unique human-animal relationship has an extra dimension: not only do honeyguides use calls to solicit human partners, but humans use specialised calls to recruit birds’ assistance. Research in the Niassa National Reserve reveals that by using specialised calls to communicate and cooperate with each other, people and wild birds can significantly increase their chances of locating vital sources of calorie-laden food.

In a paper (Reciprocal signaling in honeyguide-human mutualism) published in Science, evolutionary biologist Dr Claire Spottiswoode (University of Cambridge and University of Cape Town) and co-authors (conservationists Keith Begg and Dr Colleen Begg of the Niassa Carnivore Project) reveal that honeyguides are able to respond adaptively to specialised signals given by people seeking their collaboration, resulting in two-way communication between humans and wild birds.

This reciprocal relationship plays out in the wild and occurs without any conventional kind of ‘training’ or coercion. “What’s remarkable about the honeyguide-human relationship is that it involves free-living wild animals whose interactions with humans have probably evolved through natural selection, probably over the course of hundreds of thousands of years,” says Spottiswoode, a specialist in bird behavioural ecology and funded by a BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship.

“Thanks to the work in Kenya of Hussein Isack, who electrified me as an 11-year-old when I heard him speak in Cape Town, we’ve long known that people can increase their rate of finding bees’ nests by collaborating with honeyguides, sometimes following them for over a kilometre. Keith and Colleen Begg, who do wonderful conservation work in northern Mozambique, alerted me to the Yao people’s traditional practice of using a distinctive call which they believe helps them to recruit honeyguides. This was instantly intriguing – could these calls really be a mode of communication between humans and a wild animal?”

With the help of honey-hunters from the local Yao community, Spottiswoode carried out controlled experiments in Mozambique’s Niassa National Reserve to test whether the birds were able to distinguish the call from other human sounds, and so to respond to it appropriately. The ‘honey-hunting call’ made by honey-hunters, and passed from generation to generation, is a loud trill followed by a short grunt: ‘brrr-hm’.

To discover whether honeyguides associate ‘brrr-hm’ with a specific meaning, Spottiswoode made recordings of this call and two kinds of ‘control’ sounds : arbitrary words called out by the honey-hunters and the calls of another bird species. When these sounds were played back in the wild during experimental honey-hunting trips, birds were much more likely respond to the ‘brrr-hm’ call made to attract them than they were to either of the other sounds.

“The traditional ‘brrr-hm’ call increased the probability of being guided by a honeyguide from 33% to 66%, and the overall probability of being shown a bees’ nest from 16% to 54% compared to the control sounds. In other words, the ‘brrr-hm’ call more than tripled the chances of a successful interaction, yielding honey for the humans and wax for the bird,” says Spottiswoode.

“Intriguingly, people in other parts of Africa use very different sounds for the same purpose – for example, our colleague Brian Wood’s work has shown that Hadza honey-hunters in Tanzania make a melodious whistling sound to recruit honeyguides. We’d love to know whether honeyguides have learnt this language-like variation in human signals across Africa, allowing them to recognise good collaborators among the local people living alongside them.”

The project was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in the UK and the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence at the FitzPatrick Institute in South Africa. For further information on this project see www.africancuckoos.com.

ENDS

Notes to editors

Full paper: Reciprocal signaling in honeyguide-human mutualism was published in Science 22 Jul 2016: Vol. 353, Issue 6297, pp. 387-389. science.sciencemag.org/content/353/6297/387.


Tags: birds ecology behaviour video press release