If you’re a rhino of any kind, then you’d probably always want to keep your distance from humans. Rhinos have a long history of being prime targets for animal poaching because of their valuable facial horns, and so the last thing they want is any entanglement with one of us. Fortunately, these majestic creatures may get assistance from another type of animal when it comes to shying away.
Image Credit: Pixabay
A paper published just this past week in the journal Current Biology validates a particularly fascinating symbiotic relationship that exists between the humble black rhino and a rather distinct bird known as the red-billed oxpecker. And from what we can gather, these incredible birds just might help the black rhinos in their everlasting quest to avoid humans.
A team of researchers were rather curious about the red-billed oxpecker’s localized name ‘Askari wa kifaru,’ which translates to English as “The rhino’s guard.” It’s difficult to imagine a mere bird guarding a massive rhino from any sort of real danger, but according to the results of this novel research, they seem to do a pretty good job of it.
As it would seem, red-billed oxpeckers enjoy hitching rides on the backs of black rhinos; and like black rhinos, these birds aren’t too keen of humans either. When they sense humans nearby, red-billed oxpeckers seem to make a lot of noise, and the black rhino responds to the noise by retreating back to safety. This is a symbiotic relationship because the bird gets a free ride while the rhino receives an alarm system in return.
The researchers validated this exchange of behavior with the help of radio transmitters, which allowed them to track the animals’ movements in real time without getting so close to the black rhinos that it would sound the red-billed oxpeckers’ danger alarm. In some cases, however, the researchers got up close and personal with the animals to better understand how the alarm system worked.
Their research revealed that tagged black rhinos harbored a red-billed oxpecker more than 50% of the time. On the other hand, untagged black rhinos weren’t carrying a red-billed oxpecker most of the time. This indicates that the untagged rhinos without the birds were easier for the researchers to get close to, while those with birds had likely managed to get away before being noticed.
In bolder experiments, the researchers actually attempted to approach the black rhinos while exploiting their blind spots. While this would have worked if the rhinos didn’t have a hitchhiking bird on their back, the researchers quickly found that those sporting birds responded to the birds’ alarm calls by turning their attention to their blind spot and getting away from the researcher(s).
"Our experiment found that rhinos without oxpeckers detected a human approaching only 23% of the time," explained Roan Plotz, a researcher from Victoria University, Australia and a co-author of the paper.
"Due to the bird’s alarm call, those with oxpeckers detected the approaching human in 100% of our trials and at an average distance of 61 meters—nearly four times further than when rhinos were alone. In fact, the more oxpeckers the rhino carried, the greater the distance at which a human was detected."
As interesting as the research is, red-billed oxpecker populations aren’t as robust as they once were, and with fewer of the birds in the wild today, black rhinos may not be as well protected against poachers as they could be. These notions suggest that increasing red-billed oxpecker populations could directly impact black rhino populations in a positive manner, which could bolster conservation efforts.
Theory or not, it just might be worth a try…