Better Together: The Intricate System of Symbiosis in the Bush

Mon 28 Sep 2020

A symbiosis is an evolved interaction or close living relationship between organisms from different species, usually with benefits to one or both of the individuals involved. Symbioses may be ‘obligate’, in which case the relationship between the two species is so interdependent, that each of the organisms is unable to survive without the other; or ‘facultative’, in which the two species engage in a symbiotic partnership through choice, and can survive individually.

Here at Limpopo-Lipadi we have some excellent examples of symbiotic relationships occurring with various bird species that interact with several other species of animal, with benefits to both species involved.

The relationship between the honeyguide bird and the honey badger is legendary. Even it’s scientific name says what it does: Indicator indicator. The greater honeyguide, indicates where honey can be found. The honeyguide will find a bee nest, and then it will go and look for a honey badger that it can co-opt to break open the nest. It makes a specific sound to attract the attention of the badger, and it then guides the badger to the nest by changing the frequency of its call, getting more frantic as the badger gets in proximity of the nest.

Once the badger has broken the nest, and has gained access to the honeycomb, it will eat its fill, and the honeyguide will eat the beeswax that gets discarded, having special enzymes that allows its body to break down the wax and gain sustenance from it. Honeyguides have also learned that humans have the capability to break open beehives and will try to entice humans to come to the same arrangement as what it has with the badger. The isiZulu believe that bad luck will befall the person who doesn’t share the spoils of this robbery with the honeyguide, and the honeyguide will lead such a culprit to a mamba’s hideout to get his, or her, just desserts.

Another symbiotic relationship we often see, is between the oxpecker (red-billed and yellow-billed) and plains game. The oxpecker will remove ticks and other ectoparasites from animals, as well as clean wounds. But wait, there’s more! When the birds sense danger, they let out a warning call, alerting their four-hooved friends. Talk about a useful partnership. However, it’s not all plain sailing. Sometimes the oxpecker will deliberately open wounds simply to drink the blood, making this relationship a little bit parasitic.

Yellow-billed hornbills have several symbiotic relationships with the other denizens of the bush. They are known to travel with both banded mongoose and dwarf mongoose, hunting for insects, and eating scraps left by the little predators. They will even go and wake up the mongoose in the morning and get them going. They have been seen grooming the mongoose, removing fleas. Hornbills are also known to introduce cockroaches into their enclosed nests, allowing the cockroaches to live of debris inside the nest, keeping it clean.

Symbiosis is a way of life. It helps certain species survive against the odds. We as humans could learn a lot from these simple yet effective relationships, which are mostly beneficial to both parties involved.