As human beings, we don’t just coexist with animals. We often have cooperative relationships with them too. Cooperation is defined as working together for some kind of mutual benefit, and can also be seen between different animal species. A good example of this is ravens guiding wolves to prey, and then feasting on the leftovers.
There are all sorts of levels and examples of human-animal cooperation. Most commonly, we think of domesticated animals such as dogs, cats and horses. There are also fascinating instances of people cooperating with wild animals.
Domesticated Animals’ Cooperation
Over hundreds of years, people were able to create new breeds of animals to help in different ways. House cats are mousers and keep rodents away; donkeys, mules and similar beasts of burden were essential in agriculture.
Not all domesticated animals helped out actively around settlements. Sheep, for example, were bred specifically for food. Most creatures became valued companions as well as workers or sources of nourishment. Dogs, of course, were bred to have different roles such as hunters or herders, but they soon earned the title of man’s best friend and discovered the couch.
Domesticated animals benefit from cooperative relationships with humans because we keep them fed and watered. But the partnerships don’t seem truly equal; we’re in charge, telling them exactly what to do and when to do it. Partly because they don’t have opposable thumbs of course. At the end of the day they can’t cook or play pokies for us, but they can curl up beside us and keep us company while we do the things we enjoy. Essentially, we are the bosses and they are our workforce. In the wild, the relationship tends to be more like an equal business partnership.
One of the most incredible relationships that humans have with another species is with the Greater Honeyguide, a tiny bird that helps groups of human hunters in different parts of Africa. They find wild beehives in the hollows of baobabs and other trees, and lead local people to the right spots.
Once the hive is captured and the honey claimed by the hunters, the tiny birds get the calorie-rich wax and larvae. This remarkable setup was recorded for the first time in the 1500s, but Claire Spottiswoode, a Cambridge zoologist, made some interesting discoveries on the phenomenon very recently.
Spottiswoode spent time with the Yao community in Mozambique and reported, for the first time, that the hunters don’t simply watch their little guides. They call them, using a specific sound, when they are ready to look for honey. And they are answered by their winged co-collaborators 66% of the time.
This is the only example of such two-way communication occurring naturally, and Spottiswoode theorises that it is innate. Greater Honeyguides hatch in the nests of other birds and are raised by different species, so there’s no real way that they could learn this behaviour by watching adults.
The interaction seems to be as flexible as it is in-built; the birds have been found to respond to different-sounding calls in Tanzania and Zambia. While not at the same level of complexity as language between two people, the innateness and adaptability of this communication instinct has some really interesting parallels.
The closest thing to another example of the two-way exchanges between Greater Honeyguides and people, is seen in fishing villages in Laguna, Brazil. A local population of 20 dolphins has been found to work with the villagers, herding groups of red mullet to where their fishing boats are. When the mullet has been corralled, the dolphins show the humans where to cast their nets by slapping their tails or noses in specific ways. In return, the dolphins get to share in the catch.
The situation with the dolphins is quite distinct from the Honeyguides’. The behaviour is believed to be passed down from mother dolphins to their calves through social learning, rather than being innate. And, very notably, the fisher-dolphin relationship is not replicated anywhere in the world, as the hunter-honeyguide cooperation is. Clearly there is still a lot to learn. One thing that does seem clear though, is that we can all bond over and share in the local food sources!