African Honeyguides

Research on a remarkable
human-animal relationship

Welcome to African Honeyguides

How a mutualism evolves: learning, coevolution, and their ecosystem consequences in human-honeyguide interactions.

African Honeyguide

Honeyguides are wild birds, not tame. This male Greater Honeyguide, held by honey-hunter Orlando Yassene, has been briefly captured for research.

We study a remarkable mutualism: the foraging partnership between an African bird species, the greater honeyguide, and human honey-hunters whom it guides to bees’ nests. Honeyguides know where bees’ nests are located and like to eat beeswax; humans know how to subdue the bees using fire, and open the nest using axes. By working together, the two species can locate the bees, overcome the bees’ defences and gain access to the nest, thus providing beeswax for the honeyguides and honey for the humans. This specialised relationship is an extremely rare example of animal-human cooperation that has evolved through natural selection.

Why study honeyguides? Honeyguide-human interactions give us a wonderful opportunity to study mutualisms in nature. This is because local human and honeyguide populations vary strikingly in whether and how they cooperate and communicate, and because we can readily manipulate these interactions experimentally to understand how the mutualism functions.

Who are we? We are a team of researchers working in close cooperation with rural honey-hunting communities, particularly in the Niassa Special Reserve in northern Mozambique, where our project is known locally as ‘Projecto Sego’ (Project Honeyguide). Our research team is based jointly at the University of Cambridge in the UK and the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and we collaborate widely with researchers elsewhere. In Mozambique, our research is hosted by the Mariri Environmental Centre run by the Niassa Carnivore Project. We are funded by the European Research Council (Consolidator Grant 725185 to Claire Spottiswoode).

What are we studying? The overall aim of our research is to understand the ecology, evolution and conservation implications of the honeyguide-human relationship, as a window into the origin and maintenance of mutually beneficial interactions between species (mutualisms). Our work builds on pioneering research in Kenya by Dr Hussein Isack in the 1980s, who first demonstrated scientifically how the mutualism functions. Now, in the Niassa Reserve, and at other locations in south-eastern Africa, we are asking: is learning involved in maintaining a geographical mosaic of honeyguide adaptation to different human cultures? How does reciprocal communication between humans and honeyguides mediate their interactions? How does the mutualism influence the ecosystems in which it operates, owing to its influence on bees, trees, fire, and human communities? What happens to each party and their ecosystems when the mutualism breaks down, and how quickly can a cooperative culture be re-ignited following its loss? In so doing we are testing for the first time the hypothesis that reciprocal learning can give rise to matching cultural traits between interacting species.

How can you help us? If you have seen or heard a Greater Honeyguide anywhere in Africa, and whether or not it guided you, please tell us about it! This will help us in our research. Please visit our citizen science project at Honeyguiding.me for more information and to submit a sighting.

Why does this matter? Understanding the role of behavioural adaptations such as learning is crucial to explain how and why the outcome of species interactions varies in space and time, and to predict how they will respond to a rapidly changing world. This is relevant to conservation, because mutualisms can have wide reach in shaping ecological communities. The honeyguide-human relationship is currently dwindling throughout Africa, and before it fades away, we need to understand this ancient part of our own species’ evolutionary history in those few places where it still thrives. 

How human-honeyguide cooperation works:

Please click on an image to walk through a honey-hunt:

Information on honeyguides as brood parasites

Need information on honeyguides as brood parasites?

News

Out now: two review papers on human-wildlife cooperation

We have just published two review papers on human-wildlife cooperation, in collaboration with a multidisciplinary team of 41 scientists, conservationists, and practitioners of human-wildlife cooperation from around the world. These papers were products from discussions started at the Human-Wildlife Mutualism Workshop we organised in January 2021. In “Safeguarding human-wildlife cooperation”, published in Conservation Letters, we review the benefits, threats and unique safeguarding considerations of human-wildlife cooperation. In  “The Ecology and Evolution of Human-Wildlife Cooperation”, published in People and Nature, we provide an overview about what is known about the ecology and evolution of cooperation between humans and wild animals. Abstracts of both papers are available in English, Portuguese, and Kiswahili here. Please also see media coverage from Mongabay, The Conversation, and an interview with Jessica van der Wal in Science.

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Laltaika interviewed by Mongabay

The conservation news website Mongabay interviewed Eliupendo Laltaika, who recently completed his MSc as part of our team, about his research on the ecology and conservation of human-honeyguide mutualism. Laltaika will soon be rejoining our team to start his PhD, extending his research on human-honeyguide mutualism in Tanzania.

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New collaborative paper on the ecology and evolution of human-wildlife cooperation

Our paper entitled “The Ecology and Evolution of Human-Wildlife Cooperation” has been accepted for publication in the journal People and Nature. This review article provides an overview about what is known about the ecology and evolution of cooperation between humans and wild animals. Specifically, we discuss the impacts of these interactions on the participants and the wider ecosystem, the development and regulation of the cooperative behaviours, and finally, how the interactions may have evolved. Our review highlights that much remains to be learned about human-wildlife cooperation, and we recommend that ecologists, evolutionary biologists, and anthropologists work together so we can better understand these fascinating interspecies partnerships.

Please click ‘Read More’ below to find the paper’s abstract in English, Portuguese and Kiswahili.

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Honeyguide flyer

Supported By:

EU ERC Logo

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 725185).