Claire N. Spottiswoode
Claire N. Spottiswoode

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

Claire N. Spottiswoode
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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13 Facts About Opossums
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Opossums, which include the roughly 100 species in the order Didelphimorphia, are some of the most misunderstood animals in the Americas. They’re often thought of as dimwitted, dirty creatures whose most impressive trick is acting like roadkill. The truth is just the opposite: Opossums are smarter, cleaner, and more beneficial to humans than many of their woodland neighbors. Read on for more opossum facts.

1. OPOSSUMS AND POSSUMS AREN’T THE SAME ANIMAL.

In North America, opossum and possum describe the same thing, but in Australia the word possum refers to a completely different animal. Among the most well known of their respective types are the Virginia opossum and the brushtail possum. Both are small to medium sized, omnivorous marsupials, but the similarities end there. The possum looks like a cute cross between a squirrel and a chinchilla and it belongs to a different order than the North American mammal that shares (most of) its name. Despite the potential for confusion, possum is accepted as the shortened version of opossum in this part of the world (and if you see the word possum in this list, you can assume it’s referring to the animal from the Americas).

2. THEY’RE THE ONLY MARSUPIALS FOUND NORTH OF MEXICO.

Marsupials—mammals that carry and nurse their young in pouches—are absent from much of the world, and in Canada and the United States opossums are the sole representatives of the group. Like other marsupials, mother possums give birth to tiny, underdeveloped offspring (called joeys) that immediately crawl into a pouch where they live and nurse during their first months of life. Only once they’ve grown big and strong enough do they venture out, transitioning between their mother’s back and the warmth of the pouch until they mature into adults.

3. THEY CAN’T CHOOSE WHEN THEY PLAY DEAD.

Possum playing dead.
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Perhaps the most famous characteristic of the opossum is its tendency to play dead in front of predators. When the animal experiences intense fear in the face of danger, it seizes up and flops to the ground where it can remain for hours staring blankly ahead and sticking out its tongue. It’s an impressive defensive mechanism, but its effectiveness can’t be chalked up to the possum’s acting skills. Possums have no control over when they play dead or for how long they do it: The comatose-like state is an involuntary reaction triggered by stress.

4. AN OFFENSIVE ODOR SELLS THE PERFORMANCE.

A picture of a possum playing dead doesn’t really do it justice. To get the full experience, you need to be standing over to it to smell the putrid odor it emits when pretending to be a corpse. The smelly substance it secretes from its anus is just one more reason for foxes and bobcats to look for their dinner elsewhere.

5. THEY SLOW THE SPREAD OF LYME DISEASE.

Even if possums aren’t the cutest creatures in the forest, they should be a welcome addition to your backyard. Unlike other mammals that carry ticks, and therefore spread Lyme Disease, possums gobble up 90 percent of the ticks that attach to them. According to the National Wildlife Federation, a single possum consumes 5000 of the parasites per tick season. That means the more possums that are in your area, the fewer ticks you’ll encounter.

6. THEIR MEMORIES ARE SURPRISINGLY SHARP.

Possum looking up at table.
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Opossums have impressive memories—at least when it comes to food. Researchers found that possums are better at remembering which runway led to a tasty treat than rats, cats, dogs, and pigs. They can also recall the smell of toxic substances up to a year after trying them.

7. THEY’RE IMMUNE TO MOST SNAKE VENOM.

While most animals look at a snake and see danger, a possum sees its next meal. The animals are immune to the venom of nearly every type of snake found in their native range, the one exception being the coral snake. Possums take advantage of this adaptation by chowing down on snakes on a regular basis.

Researchers have been trying to harvest possums’ antivenom powers for decades. A few years ago, a team of scientists made progress on this front when they recreated a peptide found in possums and and found that mice given the peptide and rattlesnake venom were successfully protected from the venom’s harmful effects.

8. THEY ALMOST NEVER GET RABIES.

While possums aren’t totally immune to rabies (a few cases have been documented), finding a specimen with the disease is extremely unlikely. Marsupials like possums have a lower body temperature than the placental mammals that dominate North America—in other words, their bodies don’t provide a suitable environment for the virus.

9. THEIR TAIL ACTS AS A FIFTH APPENDAGE.

Baby opossum hanging from a tree branch by its tail.
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Opossums are one of a handful of animals with prehensile tails. These appendages are sometimes used as an extra arm: They can carry grass and leaves for building nests or grip the sides of trees to provide extra stability while climbing. Baby possums can even use their tails to hang from branches upside down as they’re often depicted doing in cartoons. But it’s a myth that possums sleep this way: Their tails are only strong enough to hold them for a short amount of time.

10. THEY’RE CONSTANTLY SELF-GROOMING.

Thanks to their whole acting-and-smelling-like-a-corpse routine, opossums aren’t known as the most sanitary animals in nature. But they take cleanliness seriously: The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife writes that possums, like housecats, use their tongue and paws to groom themselves frequently and thoroughly. Possums largely lack sweat glands, and this behavior is believed to help them cool down. It also has the added effect of rendering them odorless (when they’re not secreting stinky predator-repellant, that is).

11. THEIR EYES AREN’T TOTALLY BLACK.

Close-up on opossum's face.
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One of the opossum’s most recognizable features is its pair of opaque eyes. Opossum eyes do have whites and irises, but because their pupils are so large, their eyes appear completely black from a distance. The exaggerated pupil dilation is thought to help the nocturnal animals see after the sun goes down.

12. THEY’RE SOCIAL CREATURES.

It was long assumed that opossums like to keep to themselves, but a study published in the journal Biology Letters suggests they have a social side. Researchers at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil observed some possums in captivity sharing dens even if they weren’t mates. In one case, 13 white-eared opossums of various age groups were cohabiting the same space. The scientists suspect that male and female possums living in the wild may even build nests together as a way to trigger the female’s reproductive hormones.

13. THEIR REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEMS ARE COMPLICATED.

The way it gives birth and raises its young isn’t the only thing that’s interesting about the opossum's reproductive life. Females have two vaginal tracts and two uteri, and males in turn have a forked or bifurcated penis. This is fairly typical for marsupials, but when European colonizers first landed in North America centuries ago, they didn’t know what to make of the confusing genitalia. One explanation they came up with was that male opossums impregnated females through the nose.

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Hero Crayfish Cheats Death By Removing Its Own Claw to Escape Pot of Boiling Water
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There remains a perpetual debate over the ethical consequences of taking a crustacean and boiling it alive. In early 2018, Switzerland actually made it illegal to give living lobsters a scalding hot bath. (Instead, chefs are expected to stun them electronically before submersion.) Scientists can’t reach a conclusion over whether decapods feel pain—or if we can even define what that means for them.

While humans argue, some clawed sacrifices are taking action. A crayfish filmed by a Facebook user in China is making the internet rounds and being hailed as a hero after taking dramatic measures to escape a boiling pot of water.

In the footage, the crayfish appears to be unable to extricate its left appendage from a bubbling vat of doom. Rather than succumb, the crayfish uses its right claw to sever its compromised claw and scurry off. At 11 seconds, it’s the best summary of a Saw film possible.

“Juike,” the user who originally posted the video to the Weibo social media site, says he has taken the crafty invertebrate home and put him in an aquarium as a pet. The tiny survivalist may even regrow his lost limb, as crawfish are able to do, although it might not reach its former size.

Crayfish are in inherent danger of being turned into soup in China, where specialty restaurants devoted to their preparation are popping up. Some observers believe their popularity is due to diners having to step away from phones and social media in order to use both hands to peel away at their shells.

[h/t BBC]

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