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)

  • Cram, D.L., van der Wal, J.E.M., Uomini, N.T., Cantor, M., Afan, A.I., Attwood, M.C., Amphaeris, J., Balasani, F., Blair, C.J., Bronstein, J.L., Buanachique, I.O., Cuthill, R.R.T., Das, J., Daura-Jorge, F.G., Deb, A., Dixit, T., Dlamini, G.S., Dounias, E., Gedi, I.I., Gruber, M., Hoffman, L.S., Holzlehner, T., Isack, H.A., Laltaika, A.E., Lloyd-Jones, D.J., Lund, J., Machado, A.M.S., Mahadevan, L., Moreno, I.B., Nwaogu, C.J., Pierotti, R., Rucunua, S.A., dos Santos, W.F., Serpa, N., Smith, B.D., Sridhar, H., Tolkova, I., Tun, T., Valle-Pereira, J.V.S., Wood, B.M., Wrangham, R.W. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2022 The ecology and evolution of human-wildlife cooperation. People and Nature DOI: 10.1002/pan3.10369 Read abstract in English, Portuguese and Kiswahili here


Cultural Evolution Society grant awarded to Jessica van der Wal

Jessica van der Wal was awarded a grant from the Cultural Evolution Society Transformation Fund for her project entitled ‘Cultural mosaic of human-honeyguide mutualism’. This will allow her to grow the pan-African collaborative to document Africa’s remaining diversity of endangered honey-hunting cultures with honeyguide birds. Thank you to the CES for this wonderful support! The growing Honey-hunting Research Network currently exists of researchers in Cameroon (Dr Mazi Sandi and Jacob Wandala), Ghana (Wiro-Bless Kamboe), Eswatini (Sanele Nhlabatsi and Dr Celiwe Ngcamphalala), Malawi (George Malembo M’manga), Nigeria (Anap Ishaku Afan), and Tanzania (Eliupendo Alaitetei Laltaika, Amana Kilawi). Other partners in the project are anthropologist Dr Brian Wood and database manager Farisayi Dakwa.

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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 is about to rejoin our team to start his PhD, extending his research on human-honeyguide mutualism in Tanzania.

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