You Scratch My Back, I’ll Watch Yours: Symbiotic Wildlife

Written by Thomson Safaris

Beauty hurts?
Sabi_2012 05 18_0437” by Flickr user Harvey Barrison licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s a jungle out there…okay, more of a savannah, but either way, life in the wild can be hard to handle on your own. That’s why so many species of wildlife team up, forming symbiotic relationships that help them both survive (or at least get a little more comfortable). Some of our favorite dynamic duos include:

Warthogs & Mongooses
Warthogs are fierce fighters, armed with razor-sharp tusks, sturdy bodies, and, if you believe The Lion King, some serious stink.

But these notorious tough guys turn softy when they see a pack of mongooses. Even though a warthog could easily crush an entire pack, it will lay down when it sees mongooses approaching and allow the smaller animals to score a tasty meal of ticks and fleas in exchange for a thorough cleaning. But the mongooses know they have to be quick; it’s the only way to outpace the warthog’s famously-short temper!

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Rhinos & Oxpeckers
Anyone who’s visited knows the bush can sometimes be a dirty place. That’s why big (and relatively inflexible) animals like the rhinoceros rely on partners like the oxpecker to clean ticks off their hides.

Rhinoceros do benefit from the oxpeckers, who act as an early warning system if predators are approaching, but oxpeckers benefit more; not only do they tend to prefer to “clean” the ticks that are already engorged with blood, they then burrow into the sores left behind for more tasty treats. Some scientists even refer to oxpeckers as “vampire birds,” since they use both the ticks and the host’s blood as food sources.

Nonetheless, rhinoceros tolerate these freeloaders in exchange for the occasional “heads up.” With friends like these…

Olive Baboons & Elephants
The olive baboon is the most widely-ranging living baboon, with populations in 25 African countries. Maybe part of that can be chalked up to its mutually beneficial relationship with elephants.

Elephants are known to dig “wells” in the sand when it’s dry…so olive baboons know to follow elephants around when they’re thirsty.

Of course an elephant would never forget a debt; in exchange for allowing them to use the watering holes, elephants rely on the tree top baboons as an early warning system when danger is near.

Ostriches & Zebras
If Jack Sprat and his wife had been African animals, they’d be the ostrich and the zebra. Ostriches are a bit hard of hearing, with a poor sense of smell, but their massive eyes are great at spotting predators. Zebra, on the other hand, can hardly see the stripes at the end of their noses, but they make up for it with heightened smell and hearing.

And so between the two of them, predators are heard, smelled, AND seen.

Plovers & Crocodiles
It’s a relationship straight out of one of Aesop’s fables. The crocodile will open his mighty jaws and allow the humble plover inside, where the bird picks away the bits of meat stuck in the crocodile’s terrible teeth, safe from the crocodile’s deadly bite.

Unfortunately, the charming tale of crocs trading some free dental work for a free meal does seem to be a fable. The tit-for-tat trade between the fearless little plover and the fearsome croc has never been documented.

The Honeyguide Bird & People
Many believe the honeyguide leads the honey badger, or ratel, to its favorite food source, but evidence shows the honey badger don’t care, he’ll find his own hives.

People, however, have quickly learned to follow this bird, who will fly to a bee colony, wait while people crack it open and take away all the unwanted honey, then feed on the wax and remaining larva inside.

Talk about a sweet deal.