African Honeyguides

Research on a remarkable
human-animal relationship

Dr Dominic Cram

Dominic Cram


My research investigates cooperation in the natural world, with an emphasis on how cooperating impacts health and ageing. I have worked on several wild bird and mammal species and study a range of markers of animal health, including oxidative damage, antioxidant protection, and telomere length analysis. My PhD research with white-browed sparrow weavers demonstrated that the physiological costs of rearing young fall heaviest on those that breed most, but that these costs can be mitigated by cooperative sharing of workloads. In my first post-doctoral position, I showed that social dominance in cooperative groups of Kalahari meerkats is not associated with specialised slow ageing trajectories, and that sibling rivalries can accelerate ageing even in new-born pups.

Research focus

My current focus is on the honeyguide’s contribution to the mutualistic foraging partnership with humans. After a successful harvest, the grateful honey-hunter typically leaves a piece of beeswax to reward the bird that guided them to the bees. However, our observations indicate that other honeyguides often eat this wax. If honeyguides can steal wax without guiding, how is the mutualism maintained? Which individual honeyguides cooperate with human honey-hunters, and which instead try to ‘scrounge’ a free meal? Are some honeyguides better guides than others? Do honeyguides that cooperate have access to more beeswax?

To address these questions, I have established a ringed population of honeyguides which allows us to collect individual-based data on decisions to guide or scrounge, guiding outcomes, and wax consumption. I am combining observational and experimental field data with laboratory analyses including stable isotope diet reconstruction and telomere length analysis.

Selected recent publications:

(Please see Google Scholar for a full publication list)



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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New paper on human-honeyguide cooperation and communication

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. Human honey-hunters signal to honeyguides using specialised calls that vary culturally across Africa. The new study shows using field experiments in Mozambique and Tanzania that honeyguides 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.

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