African Honeyguides

Research on a remarkable
human-animal relationship

New paper on human-honeyguide cooperation and communication

Dec 8, 2023

Yao honey-hunter Seliano Rucunua

A new study from the Honeyguide Research Project shows that Greater Honeyguides learn the distinct calls that honey-hunters in different parts of Africa use to communicate with them, facilitating cooperation between species. Greater Honeyguides are wax-eating African birds that lead people to bees’ nests, so that we humans can open the nest using fire and tools, revealing honey for us and wax for the bird. To attract honeyguides and to coordinate a cooperative honey-hunt, human honey-hunters signal to honeyguides using specialised calls that vary culturally across Africa, from trills, grunts and words, to different types of whistles. The new study shows using field experiments in Mozambique and Tanzania that honeyguides learn and prefer the specialised calls of the local human culture they interact with, compared to those of a foreign culture. This implies that honeyguides can adjust to human cultural diversity, increasing the benefits of cooperation for both people and birds: effective communication between species makes honeyguides more likely to interact with a cooperative human (and so get more wax), and humans more likely to interact with a cooperative honeyguide (and so get more honey). It also suggests that communication between humans and other species can assign meaning to arbitrary sounds in a similar manner to human language.

The image shows Yao honey-hunter Seliano Rucunua, one of the many honey-hunters who inspire and support our long-term research on human-honeyguide cooperation, and a male Greater Honeyguide briefly captured for research in the Niassa Special Reserve, Mozambique.

Please see: “Culturally determined interspecies communication between humans and honeyguides” by Claire Spottiswoode and Brian Wood, published in the journal Science on 7 December 2023.


Honey-hunting Research Network workshop

The Honey-hunting Research Network (coordinated by Jessica van der Wal) met in Cape Town for a very enjoyable week of analysing and comparing interview data from honey-hunting cultures across Africa, painting a picture of the human cultural variation relevant to honeyguides, and its uncertain future on a rapidly changing continent. Joining in person were Wiro-Bless Kamboe, Rochelle Mphetlhe, George M’manga, Sanele Nhlabatsi, Daniella Mhangwana, Celiwe Ngcamphalala, Claire Spottiswoode and Jessica van der Wal. Thank you to the Cultural Evolution Society Transformation Fund for funding our get-together!

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