Reciprocal signaling in honeyguide-human mutualism

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Science  22 Jul 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6297, pp. 387-389
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf4885

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Show me a sign of sweetness to come

Communication between humans and domesticated animals is common. Regular communication between humans and wild animals, however, is rare. African honey-guide birds are known to regularly lead human honey-hunters to bee colonies, and the humans, on opening up the nest, leave enough mess for the birds to feast on. Spottiswoode et al. show that when the honey-hunters make a specific call, honey-guides are both more likely to come to their aid and more likely to find them a bee's nest. This interaction suggests that the birds are able to attach a specific meaning of cooperation to the human's call—a rare case of mutualism between humans and a wild animal.

Science, this issue p. 387


Greater honeyguides (Indicator indicator) lead human honey-hunters to wild bees’ nests, in a rare example of a mutualistic foraging partnership between humans and free-living wild animals. We show experimentally that a specialized vocal sound made by Mozambican honey-hunters seeking bees’ nests elicits elevated cooperative behavior from honeyguides. The production of this sound increased the probability of being guided by a honeyguide from about 33 to 66% and the overall probability of thus finding a bees’ nest from 17 to 54%, as compared with other animal or human sounds of similar amplitude. These results provide experimental evidence that a wild animal in a natural setting responds adaptively to a human signal of cooperation.

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