Claire Spottiswoode

Pola Pasvolsky Chair in Conservation Biology, Cape Town
BBSRC David Phillips Research Fellow, Cambridge.

The natural history of a human-animal mutualism

Claire Spottiswoode1,2, David Lloyd-Jones1, and Brian Wood3,4

1 FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, University of Cape Town, South Africa

2 Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, UK

3 Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

4 Department of Human Behavior, Ecology and Culture, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany

Smithsonian Image

Honeyguides are wax-eating African birds that lead human honey-hunters to bees’ nests. Humans subdue the bees and chop open their nest, exposing the honey for the humans and the wax for the honeyguide. This mutualism is highly susceptible to variation in culture, since our own species is half of it. Human cultures differ in whether they have skills to offer honeyguides; in whether they cheat or reward honeyguides; and in the signals they direct at honeyguides to solicit and coordinate their cooperative hunts. In Mozambique and Tanzania, we are investigating how honeyguide-human mutualism is shaped by such cultural traits, and in turn may shape its own environment. Our recent experiments show that honeyguides understand the signals directed at them by their local ethnic group, but not those directed at honeyguides by a foreign group. This suggests that communication between mutualists may generate a mosaic of corresponding cultures. Although payoffs vary between and within human cultures, honeyguides continue to cooperate even when rewards are low. We are quantifying such costs and benefits, and their collateral ecosystem impacts, using data collected by Mozambican honey-hunters on their own activities using a custom app. Taken together, our findings so far lead us to speculate that the human-honeyguide mutualism may have contributed to shaping our own ecology, and perhaps that of our savannah environment, deep into our evolutionary past.

Claire's homepage
comments powered by Disqus