NOV 30, 2017 8:30 AM PST

An Unlikely Relationship Involving Elk and Magpies Exposed

WRITTEN BY: Anthony Bouchard

Although uncommon, there have been a handful of incidents where animal researchers snag a chance to study interspecific relationships between two diverse kinds of animals. We’ve seen this happen between both goats and tigers and chickens and monkeys, just to name a few.

Both examples above took place in a captivity-based setting, however. To our knowledge, occurrences like these happen less frequently in the wilderness, and that’s why a newfound interaction involving wild elk and magpies made its way into the headlines this week.

A bold magpie lands on a shy elk in Canada.

Image Credit: Rob Found

Biologist Dr. Robert Found from the University of Alberta was one of the first to take note of the unusual behavior while studying elk migration behavior in Alberta, Canada, and his findings made it into the journal Biology Letters.

Related: There could be twice as many bird species as initially thought

Dr. Found’s research indicates that we can gauge the ‘shyness’ or ‘boldness’ of both elk and magpies, and the result of this gauging can help discern how likely they are to befriend one another.

As he points out, shy elk are less likely to lash out aggressively when approached by bold magpies, and this is the ideal setup. Shy magpies won’t get anywhere close to an elk, and bold elk tend to scare magpies away.

But like with most symbiotic relationships, there’s a reason certain elks and magpies get along, and it’s not just because they’re happy to see one another. Instead, it’s because magpies fancy eating the ticks that elks regularly carry on their backs after migrating for the winter.

Video Credit: Rob Found

The relationship benefits both the elk and the magpie; the elk gets a free grooming session while the magpie receives a complimentary snack for stopping by. That said, any elk with common sense would let the magpie carry on with their task.

Related: Two moose were reportedly frozen in time during an epic battle

In what just might be one of the first-known studies to incorporate animal personalities with interspecific relationships, Dr. Found’s analysis marks a significant milestone for understanding how and why these kinds of connections take place in the wild.

Several questions remain, such as whether this behavior is unique to the Canadian regions where Found observed it or if the tick’s behavior plays any role in how this relationship unfolds. Researchers hope to find answers in future follow-up studies.

Source: New York Times

About the Author
  • Fascinated by scientific discoveries and media, Anthony found his way here at LabRoots, where he would be able to dabble in the two. Anthony is a technology junkie that has vast experience in computer systems and automobile mechanics, as opposite as those sound.
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