African Honeyguides

Research on a remarkable
human-animal relationship

Dr Jessica E.M. van der Wal

Biography

Jessica van der Wal

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:

News

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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