As humans, interaction with other people is of great importance for our survival. Taking part in mutual relationships is beneficial for both individuals. The same applies to the animal world, where completely different species take part in mutually symbiotic relationships. One particularly interesting species interaction, that occurs not only within the Maasai Mara but also the wider African ecosystem, is that of the bloodthirsty birds known as oxpeckers and their large mammalian hosts.
There are two species of oxpecker, the yellow-billed and the red-billed. While their beaks may be different colours their role is the same. They spend their days clinging to large mammals, such as giraffe, buffalo, rhino, hippo and antelope, feeding off the parasites they find infesting the animals’ fur. While this provides these vampiric birds with a delicious meal, it also keeps their hosts well groomed. Ticks and other external parasites, as well as blood, mucus, dandruff and ear wax make up the oxpeckers food source. Parasites such as ticks can pass on deadly diseases as well as draining the blood of their mammal host. Although recent research suggests that the oxpecker does not make a significant difference to the parasite load on an animal, surely a few less ticks is a positive outcome for any African animal.
It’s not all good news for the parasite ridden host, as the oxpecker itself may become parasitic. Oxpeckers are sanguinivores, meaning that blood makes up a large part of their diet. They eat ticks for the blood that they provide, therefore any other access to blood is also seen by an oxpecker as a fresh meal. They are often seen picking at wounds on their mammalian hosts in an attempt to reopen the sore and gain access to a fresh flow of blood to snack on. Not only does this prevent the wound from healing, but it can also increase risk of infection.
Despite their vampiric tendencies, the oxpecker does have qualities that benefit its mammalian hosts. As well as eating ticks and other external parasites, the oxpecker acts as a watchman for the mammals on which it happens to be situated. When danger approaches, a hissing call warns its host to a potential and nearby predatory threat thus allowing the host ample opportunity to either fight or flee.
A great example of this relationship exists between the sanguinivorous oxpecker and the herbivorous rhino. A rhino’s skin is particularly sensitive therefore ticks and parasites can prove a bit of a bother. While rhino often spend time scratching themselves against rocks and trees the oxpecker is a great help as the rhino’s own personal parasite hit man. These poor giants are not blessed with particularly great eyesight, so the ability of the oxpecker to warn of danger is also a very beneficial attribute.
Symbiotic relationships within the wild are a fascinating aspect of nature. The fact that such drastically different species can work together for mutual benefit is one of the wonders of the natural world. Each animal plays a part in the ecosystem, and consequently all creatures affect one another. Whether it be a huge rhinoceros or a small and inconspicuous oxpecker, in the animal kingdom each species has a role to play.
By Ella Soule