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Claire N. Spottiswoode

In Mozambique, People and Wild Birds Share a Sweet Business Arrangement

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Claire N. Spottiswoode
Header image: Yao honey-hunter Orlando Yassene holds a wild greater honeyguide female (temporarily captured for research) in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique.

Prepare to feel inadequate about your relationship to wildlife: Honey hunters in Mozambique use special calls to enlist wild birds, who lead the people to beehives in exchange for leftovers. A report on this extraordinary relationship was published in the journal Science. 

Male (L) and female (R) honeyguides.

The appropriately named Indicator indicator, commonly known as the honeyguide, is a shrewd player from the moment it’s born. Female honeyguides lay their eggs in the nests of kingfishers, starlings, swallows, and other birds. Newly hatched honeyguide chicks then use their sharp, hooked beaks to kill any other chicks or eggs in the nest, ensuring that they will be the only beneficiaries of their hoodwinked foster parents’ attention. 

Adult honeyguides are far less mercenary but no less savvy. For thousands of years, the birds have maintained an impressive and mutually beneficial business relationship with humans. The birds are good at finding beehives, but can’t crack them open, whereas people can get inside hives but need help locating them. Since the humans are after honey and the birds want the wax honeycomb, there’s no competition for the spoils. It’s a pretty sweet deal all around.

Part of a honey harvest.

Claire Spottiswoode is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Cambridge and the University of Cape Town, and she’s been fascinated with the honeyguide-honey hunter symbiosis since childhood. When conservation biologists Colleen and Keith Begg of the Niassa Carnivore Project told her that some honey hunters had developed specialized calls to summon the birds, Spottiswoode knew she had to learn more. “This was instantly intriguing,” she said in a press statement. “Could these calls really be a mode of communication between humans and a wild animal?” 

To find out, Spottiswoode and the Beggs recruited 20 experienced honey hunters in Mozambique’s Niassa National Reserve. The hunters, all men of the Yao tribe, said they had learned the bird calls from their fathers. The researchers recorded the men’s honeyguide-summoning calls—the same “brrrr-mm” noise for all 20—as well as some unrelated sounds, like the men speaking their names and making other animal sounds. 

The scientists then followed the honey hunters into honeyguide territory, playing their recorded noises and watching to see if the birds would turn up. 

Sure enough, the birds responded eagerly to the summoning calls, showing up and leading the people to hives three times more often than they did for the nonsense sounds. The “brrrr-mm” call worked like a factory whistle, telling the honeyguides it was time to get to work. 

Elsewhere in Africa, Spottiswoode says, other groups of people have developed other types of honeyguide summoning calls. “We'd love to know whether honeyguides have learnt this language-like variation in human signals across Africa,” she said, “allowing them to recognise good collaborators among the local people living alongside them." 

Like so many of our planet’s wonders, this remarkable relationship is in jeopardy, and has already disappeared from some parts of the continent—a fact that makes the Niassa National Reserve even more important and precious. “The world is a richer place for wildernesses like Niassa,” Spottiswoode says, “where this astonishing example of human-animal cooperation still thrives."

All images courtesy of Claire N. Spottiswoode.

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Animals
Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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Big Questions
Why Do Dogs Love to Dig?
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Dog owners with green thumbs beware: It's likely just a matter of time before Fido turns your azalea bed into a graveyard of forgotten chew toys. When dogs aren't digging up your prized garden, they can be found digging elsewhere in your yard, at the beach, and even between your couch cushions at home. But what exactly is behind your dog's drive to turn every soft surface he or she sees into an excavation site?

According to Dr. Emma Grigg, an animal behaviorist and co-author of The Science Behind a Happy Dog, this behavior is completely normal. "When people say 'why do dogs dig,' the first thing that always comes to mind is 'well, because they're dogs,'" she tells Mental Floss. The instinct first appeared in dogs' wolf ancestors, then it was amplified in certain breeds through artificial selection. That's why dogs that were bred to hunt rodents, like beagles and terriers, are especially compelled to dig in places where such animals might make their homes.

But this tendency isn't limited to just a few specific breeds. No matter their original roles, dogs of all breeds have been known to kick up some dirt on occasion. Beyond predatory urges, Dr. Grigg says there are two main reasons a dog may want to dig. The first is to cool off on a hot day. When stuck on an open lawn with little to no shade, unearthing a fresh layer of dirt untouched by the sun is a quick way to beat the heat.

The second reason is to stash away goodies. Imagine your dog gets bored with chewing his favorite bone but knows he wants to come back for it later. Instead of leaving it out in the open where anyone can snatch it up, he decides to bury it in a secret place where only he'll be able to find it. Whether or not he'll actually go back for it is a different story. "There's a disconnect with modern dogs: They know the burying part but they don't always know to dig it up," Dr. Grigg says.

Because digging is part of a dog's DNA, punishing your pet for doing so isn't super effective. But that doesn't mean you should stand idly by as your yard gets turned inside-out. When faced with this behavior in your own dog, one option is to redirect it. This can mean allowing him to dig in a designated corner of the yard while keeping other parts off-limits, or setting up a raised flowerbed or sandbox especially to satisfy that urge. "You can get him interested in the area by burying a couple bones or some interesting things in there for him to dig," Dr. Grigg says. "I like the idea of buried treasure."

If your dog's motive for digging is more destructive than practical, he may have an energy problem. Dogs require a certain amount of stimulation each day, and when their humans don't provide it for them they find their own ways to occupy themselves. Sometimes it's by chewing up shoes, toppling trash cans, or digging ditches the perfect size for twisting ankles. Fortunately, this is nothing more walks and playtime can't improve.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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