African Honeyguides

Research on a remarkable
human-animal relationship

Dr Jessica E.M. van der Wal

Jessica van der Wal

Biography

I am a behavioural ecologist intrigued by the profound variation in how different species specialise on resources. For my PhD at the University of St Andrews, I studied the foraging ecology of tool use in New Caledonian crows, under the supervision of Christian Rutz. Following my PhD, I held a researcher position at Sovon Dutch Centre of Field Ornithology, followed by a short postdoc on individual strategies in birds and humans, in collaboration with Dr Rose Thorogood at the University of Helsinki. I thoroughly enjoy fieldwork in remote locations, especially when taking pioneering steps towards making new discoveries about little-understood species. I also take great pleasure in working alongside the resident communities and in doing so incorporating their social values and the associated logistics of the local environment into the research plan. I joined the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology in March 2019, on a UCT Postdoctoral Research Fellowship.

Research focus

I research the ecology and evolution of the remarkable mutualism between human honey-hunters and greater honeyguides. Among the remaining parts of Africa where this mutualism still exists, there is substantial geographical variation in the behaviour and calls honey-hunters use to attract honeyguides to lead them to bee nests. I am interested in mapping the mosaic of mutualism between honeyguides and humans, by investigating the variation in human honey-hunting cultures, and understanding how the birds must adjust and the underlying learning process involved. I employ an interdisciplinary approach to address my research questions, integrating ideas and methodologies from a variety of academic disciplines such as biology, anthropology, linguistics, as well as citizen science.

Peer-reviewed publications:

St Clair, J., Klump, B.C., van der Wal, J.E.M., Sugasawa, S. & Rutz, C. 2016 Strong between-site variation in New Caledonian crows’ use of hook-tool-making materials. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 118: 226-232.

Rutz, C., Sugasawa, S., van der Wal, J.E.M., Klump, B.C. & St Clair, J. 2016 Tool bending in New Caledonian crows. Royal Society Open Science 3: 160439.

Klump, B.C., van der Wal, J.E.M, St Clair, J. & Rutz, C. 2015 Context-dependent ‘safekeeping’ of foraging tools in New Caledonian crows. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 282: 20150278.

van der Wal, J.E.M., Dorenbosch, M., Immers, A.K., Vidal Forteza, C., Geurts, J.J., Peeters, E.T., Koese, B. & Bakker, E.S. 2013 Invasive crayfish threaten the development of submerged macrophytes in lake restoration. PLoS One 8: e78579.

News

Eliupendo Laltaika gives a talk in the Leadership for Conservation in Africa series

Eliupendo Laltaika gave a talk on his career journey and conservation work in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, as part of the Leadership for Conservation in Africa seminar series. Laltaika gives us great insight into his journey from killing wildlife for retaliation as a young man, through to becoming a wildlife ranger, founding a conservation NGO (the Ngorongoro Biodiversity Conservation Project), and currently doing his Masters studies at the University of Cape Town and carrying out research on honeyguide-human mutualism as part of our team.

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Dr Jessica van der Wal gives a talk on honeyguide mutualism research at the African BirdFair

Jessica van der Wal gave a talk on honeyguide-human mutualism as part of a session on research at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, at Birdlife South Africa’s Virtual African Birdfair. Dr Gabriel Jamie gave a talk on mimicry in the parasitic finches of Africa , representing our sister research project on coevolution between brood-parasitic birds and their hosts (more information at www.AfricanCuckoos.com). See also the amazing line-up of other talks at the Virtual African BirdFair – thank you BirdLife South Africa!

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UCT student Rion Cuthill joins us for a week

This week we are joined by Rion Cuthill, a third year student at UCT studying towards a B.Sc. in Ecology and Evolution and Applied Statistics. Rion is helping us to obtain estimates of population sizes of villages in Niassa Special Reserve through remote sensing, an essential parameter to understand the economic value of the honeyguide-human mutualism, and in models trying to understand the variation in honey-hunting cultures. Rion is an avid birder and general naturalist during his spare time.
 

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