In Fo­cus: Ox­peck­ers

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents -

Like a bevy of beau­ti­cians, yel­low-billed ox­peck­ers line up to re­move, deftly, en­gorged ticks and bit­ing in­sects from the neck of a Maa­sai gi­raffe. One spots a pass­ing fly and takes off to snatch it, beat­ing the oth­ers to the prize. Scenes like this in Kenya’s Maa­sai Mara were long held up as a text­book ex­am­ple of mu­tu­al­ism, in which two species work to­gether for shared ben­e­fit. The ox­peck­ers have stout, flattened bills for scis­sor­ing through the fur of their hosts – which also in­clude African buf­falo, rhino, ze­bra and an­telopes – as well as long claws for hold­ing on. Mean­while, the her­bi­vores ben­e­fit by be­ing rid of trou­ble­some par­a­sites. But then closer study re­vealed that the birds were also sneak­ing meals of blood from the bites, mak­ing wounds worse, and that their feed­ing ac­tu­ally had no im­pact on the over­all num­ber of ticks, fleas or flies. So the re­la­tion­ship be­tween ox­pecker and mam­mal is not purely mu­tu­al­ism: some­times the birds are them­selves par­a­sites. Their ser­vices do not come with­out a cost.

Photo: Varun Aditya

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