Researchers believe that they may have found an inventive natural way to warn black rhinos about incoming poachers.
It turns out that there is a natural symbiotic relationship that exists between black rhinos and a bird known as the red-billed oxpecker, in which the bird acts as somewhat of an alarm system for the black rhino. In fact, the bird is estimated to have this same symbiotic relationship with over 20 other animals. These birds feed on the parasites that can be found on rhinos and other mammals, and will often follow close behind them, all the while scanning for potential threats.
While studying rhinos in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, in eastern South Africa, Victoria University researcher Roan Plotz noticed that he could sometimes get very close to rhinos, but other times, it seemed that had some incredible way of detecting that he was nearby.
After a while, Plotz observed some black rhinos from afar that had oxpeckers on their backs, and the birds began to hiss when he made his approach, scaring the black rhinos away. Through his observations, he developed a theory that the birds were alerting the black rhinos about his presence.
He then set up an experiment to confirm his theory, and he found that he was correct, the rhinos were being protected by the birds. His experiment clearly showed that rhinos who had the birds with them were less likely to be found by humans. These results were replicated in 86 different trials where rhinos were tagged with trackers.
Through all of those studies, they determined that oxpeckers reduced a rhino’s chance of being seen by a human by up to 50%. They also found that each additional oxpecker that was in the group increased their ability to detect humans.
This symbiotic relationship was known about by native tribes for a very long time. In fact, the oxpecker’s Swahili name is “Askari wa kifaru,” which translates to the “rhino’s guard.”
The paper, published this month in the journal Current Biology.
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Image Credit: Simon Eeman