Collaborators and con artists

by ZSL on

Join Professor Claire Spottiswoode for our annual Stamford Raffles Lecture, discussing co-evolution as an engine of biodiversity.

The honeyguide is just one of the amazing species' relationships being covered at the lecture, being held on 12 June 2018.

Honeyguides are masters of both positive and negative interactions with other species. They are brutal brood parasites of other birds (chicks have special bill hooks to stab their foster siblings to death in the nest), but cooperate with humans to gain access to their favourite food, beeswax.

Honeyguides know where the bees are, but can’t get at the wax, whereas humans know how to get at the wax, but can’t find the bees. So honeyguides lead human honey-hunters to bees’ nests using special calls. The humans use fire to subdue the bees and axes to open up the nest cavity, revealing wax for the birds and honey for the humans. This cooperation has probably existed for as long as we’ve been human – maybe even longer.

A male honeyguide

We’ve been studying it in Mozambique with the help of the honey-hunting community of the Niassa National Reserve. In many parts of Africa, people use specialised sounds to signal to honeyguides that they’re looking for honey.

In northern Mozambique, it’s a loud trill followed by a grunt (‘brrrrrrr-hm!’). Our research has confirmed that honeyguides are much more likely to cooperate with humans who make this sound, compared to arbitrary human sounds. Humans know what honeyguides are trying to tell them, and honeyguides understand us, in a two-way conversation. Sadly the honeyguide-human mutualism is disappearing from large parts of Africa as the continent develops, so we feel lucky to be studying it in the handful of places where this part of our own evolutionary history still thrives.

The Stamford Raffles Lecture is ZSL's premier event in its annual programme of Science and Conservation Events. Established in 1995, the lectures have been given by eminent speakers on a wide range of zoological topics.

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