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)


New collaborative paper on honeyguide-human cooperation in Kenya

In a new paper in Frontiers in Conservation Science in collaboration with Isa Gedi, we report on the honey-hunting culture with greater honeyguides of the Awer people in Kenya. Awer honey-hunters depend on wild honey as a source of income, and readily seek the cooperation of honeyguides. To attract honeyguides, they whistle on the shell of a Giant African Land Snail. We thank the interviewees for sharing their honey-hunting culture with us.

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Laltaika awarded a Distinction for his MSc dissertation

Warmest congratulations to Eliupendo Laltaika, whose MSc research dissertation “Understanding the mutualistic interaction between greater honeyguides and four co-existing human cultures in northern Tanzania” was awarded with Distinction. Laltaika will graduate with an MSc in Conservation Biology from the University of Cape Town in December, and will rejoin the Honeyguide Research Project team as a PhD student from 2022. The image shows Laltaika interviewing a Ndorobo honey-hunter in September 2020, as part of his research on the honey-hunting cultures of Maasai, Sonjo, Hadzabe and Ndorobo communities in Tanzania.

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Honours students Rion Cuthill and Cameron Blair complete projects

Congratulations to Rion Cuthill and Cameron Blair for successfully finalising their University of Cape Town Honours research dissertations hosted by our project. Rion’s thesis was titled ‘Where there is smoke, is there fire? The role of the honeyguide-human mutualism in African savannah fire ecology’ and supervised by Claire Spottiswoode and Sally Archibald. Cameron’s thesis was titled ‘Does the remarkable guiding call of the Greater Honeyguide develop from its begging call?’ and supervised Claire Spottiswoode and Jessica van der Wal.

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