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The Greater Honeyguide: reciprocal signalling and innate recognition of a Honey Badger

ISSN 2219-0341
Biodiversity Observations
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Editors of this paper: James A Harrison and Les G Underhill
John E Fincham, Richard Peek and Miles B Markus
Recommended citation format:
Fincham JE, Peek R, Markus MB 2017 The Greater Honeyguide: Reciprocal signalling and innate recognition of a Honey Badger. Biodiversity Observations 8.12: 16
Published online: 4 March 2017
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John E Fincham1*, Richard Peek2 and Miles B Markus3
1SABAP2 atlaser, Cape Town, South Africa
2Stone Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, Marula, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
3School of Animal, Plant, and Environmental Sciences, University of
the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
*Corresponding author:
It is historically recorded that tribal people in Africa follow the Greater
Honeyguide Indicator indicator to bees' nests to obtain honey
(Friedmann 1955). By means of a controlled experiment, new research
has analysed the relevance of specific vocal signalling to the bird by
the human honey-hunter, as used by a tribe in northern Mozambique
(Spottiswoode et al. 2016). The bird wants the comb in order to feed
on bees' wax, eggs, and larvae (Vernon & Dean 2005).
There are numerous claims that there is a similar mutualistic
relationship between the honeyguide and the Honey Badger Mellivora
capensis, but Dean et al. (1990) reviewed the literature and concluded
that no convincing evidence had been published. Nevertheless,
Colonel James Stevenson-Hamilton, who was the Warden of the
Kruger National Park in South Africa for 44 years, and also saw military
service in remote parts of Africa, described seeing (more than once)
the bird and the badger moving together in the bushveld while
vocalising reciprocally (Stevenson-Hamilton 1954). Militarily,
Stevenson-Hamilton was trained at Sandhurst, achieved the rank of
Colonel, and served during the Anglo-Boer War and the First World
War (Carruthers 2001). As regards his report of seeing honeyguides
and badgers moving together, the suggestion has subsequently been
made that the bird may generally follow the badger, rather than the
reverse (Peek & Peek 2011; Begg & Begg 2017).
The recent research in Mozambique reminded JEF of an interaction
he had with a honeyguide. It took place in 1956 or 1957 during a hunt
for Bush Pigs Potamochoerus larvatus that were damaging the maize
crop on a ranch in central Zimbabwe. He was accompanied by four
Karanga hunters and some dogs. The Karanga are a large group
within the Shona tribe. The vegetation was a type of Miombo woodland
in which the bigger trees were mostly Brachystegia glaucescens,
which goes by the misleading common name of Mountain Acacia.
At about 09h00, the party was approached by an adult male Greater
Honeyguide (Figure 1), which was making the chattering sounds that
are used to attract attention initially, and to maintain contact while
guiding. One or more of the Karanga responded with a repetitive
whistle unlike the "brrr-hm" sound used in northern Mozambique
(Spottiswoode et al. 2016). In East Africa, honey-hunters of the Boran,
Hadza and Maasai tribes also whistle in response to the honeyguide
(Wood et al. 2014).
The honeyguide led the hunters for about 500 m, staying
approximately 20 m ahead of them, until it reached a bees' nest
situated 34 m above ground level in a hole in a B. glaucescens
tree.The bird remained perched nearby. To generate smoke, a bundle
with dry grass inside and green leaflets of Brachystegia (msasa and/or
mnondo) on the outside was bound with inner bark from the same tree
species. The grass was set alight and smouldered within the green
leaflets. This produced an abundance of smoke, which was directed
upwards around the bees.
The youngest and most agile man climbed up to the nest and enlarged
the entrance with a small traditional hand-axe (Figure 2), before
extracting combs full of honey that were passed to the men below. The
man up the tree did get stung, despite the smoke. The honey was
apparently sufficient compensation for the discomfort. A portion of
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Figure 1. The adult male Greater Honeyguide (left) and the juvenile (right) are easy to distinguish because of distinct differences in plumage colours
and patterns; and also from the colour of the beak. Photos by Hugh Chittenden.
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honeycomb was left as a reward for the honeyguide. The bees' nest
was on Hashu Farm at co-ordinates which are close to 19°25.596'S,
30°07.084'E (from Google Earth).
On three or four subsequent occasions when the same observer (JEF)
was alone in the bush, Greater Honeyguides approached and solicited
his attention by means of their guiding chatter. In these instances he
did not respond vocally but stayed as close to the birds as was
physically possible. A honeyguide led him to a bees' nest the first time,
but on the other occasions he stopped following the birds. These
experiences suggest that physical signalling by humans in the form of
persistently remaining with the bird is sufficient, without any reciprocal
vocalisation having to take place. Support for this comes from
historical descriptions of how a hunter and a game ranger,
respectively, followed honeyguides to bees' nests (Selous 1881,
Wolhuter 1947). These accounts did not mention the need for any
specific signalling to the bird, and apparently the game ranger was on
Moreover, Vernon (1989) followed
honeyguides successfully to bees' nests, and
he did not indicate that any auditory reciprocal
signalling had been required. It is possible that
the vegetation and topography where guiding
is taking place (e.g. dense bush in broken
terrain versus open savannah on flat plains)
influence not only whether vocal signalling by
the human is desirable to maintain contact
with the bird, but also the optimal type,
frequency and volume of sound needed to
achieve the most effective results.
Ornithologists and mammalogists do not
accept anecdotal reports that honeyguides
can also lead the honey badger to bees' nests
(Dean et al. 1990). However, a recently completed study has
contributed new findings based on more than 3,000 hours of
observation of the physical and behavioural development of a young
male honey badger (Figure 3) in a natural setting at Stone Hills Wildlife
Sanctuary, which is close to the Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe.
The study lasted for two years and included recorded positive
responses from honeyguides to the presence of the badger; growth of
the cub as shown by body weight; and behaviour that was detailed by
means of written notes, photographs and videos. The badger was an
orphaned male cub about six weeks old and weighed 800 g when the
study started. Two years later, he was a sexually active adolescent
weighing 10 kg when he was killed by an adult male in a fight over a
female. Unanticipated termination of the study in this way reflects that
the sequence of events took place in an ecologically natural situation.
Many of the results have been described in two books (Peek 2009;
Peek & Peek 2011). Animal minder Jabulani Khanye made a key
contribution in various ways, which included both observation and
Figure 2. A traditional hand axe like the one that was used to widen the entrance to the bees' nest.
Biodiversity Observations 8.12: 16 4
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Details of positive responses to the badger by three different
honeyguides were recorded. Early one morning, the cub and an
accompanying person were led by an adult honeyguide for a long way
to a bees' nest that was too high in a tree to reach. The response to
the bird was initiated and sustained by the human observer with the
badger continuously present, but there was no detectable recognition
of the bird by the badger. The cub was tired when they reached the
vicinity of the bees' nest, so they rested. This caused the honeyguide
to intensify efforts to attract the attention of the
cub (by approaching it and vocalising), but not
that of the accompanying person, who
deliberately stood aside. When the cub was left
asleep, the bird stayed with it and ignored the
human observer as she walked away. On two
more occasions in different areas, an adult and
a juvenile honeyguide, respectively, again tried
persistently to attract the attention of the young
badger, while ignoring human bystanders. The
immature honeyguide (Figure 1) vocalised less
than adult birds but actively followed the
badger while he ranged around freely.
The replicated behaviour by different
honeyguides in relation to the badger, as
detailed in the previous paragraph, implies that
the response to the badger's presence was
innate because the birds persisted in
attempting to engage his attention in
preference to that of an accompanying person.
This strong focus by the birds on the badger
seems to be compatible with legends that
honeyguides lead badgers, rather than vice
Taking the limitations of the study into account,
the absence of a reciprocal response by the
juvenile badger does not prove that badgers never respond to
honeyguides. Potentially significant study limitations include the
absence of any behavioural cues from a wild mother, and the death of
the badger before he became an adult. Furthermore, the badger was
not driven by hunger because he had other sources of food available
to him, in addition to which he could find bees' nests by himself. The
study at Stone Hills, described by Peek (2009) and Peek & Peek
Figure 3. The adolescent male Honey Badger searching for food by breaking open dead wood in a free-
living situation close to the Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe. Photo by Richard Peek.
Biodiversity Observations 8.12: 16 5
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(2011), has demonstrated that more research is needed to clarify the
behavioural relationships, whether innate or learned, between the
Honey Badger and the Greater Honeyguide.
It has been claimed that a reciprocal relationship with the bird is not
possible because the Honey Badger is nocturnal. However, KS & CM
Begg, co-authors of the recent paper on the association between
human honey-hunters and the Greater Honeyguide (Spottiswoode et
al. 2016), have shown that badgers in the Kalahari are both diurnal
and nocturnal (Begg & Begg 2004). Some of their observations are
recorded in the video "Snake Killers of the Kalahari", a National
Geographic DVD release. These daylight activities have been
confirmed in Botswana, Kenya, Namibia and South Africa (Begg &
Begg 2017). They include raiding of bees' nests and burrowing for
rodents or lizards, some of which, when flushed, are pirated by other
predators that deliberately shadow the badger (perhaps analogous to
the possibility that the honeyguide follows the badger). The
opportunists include the Pale Chanting Goshawk Melierax canorus
and the Black-backed Jackal Canis mesomelas.
Unfortunately, the Greater Honeyguide does not occur in the part of
the Kalahari where the badger research was done. In most other areas
where the bird is still present, the badger may have become more
nocturnal than previously because of escalating persecution by
people. An unresolved question is whether honeyguides operate at
night, especially in moonlight, when bees are less aggressive, people
are generally asleep, and honey badgers may be more active. Night-
vision cameras positioned at bees' nests in habitats utilised
simultaneously by badgers and honeyguides could provide key
Comments in recently published ornithological field guides are
collectively inconclusive as to whether honey badgers are guided to
bees' nests by honeyguides. For example, Sinclair & Ryan (2010)
wrote in their introduction to the honeyguide family that "some species
guide predators to hives"; without defining which predators are being
referred to. By contrast, according to Tarboton & Ryan (2016) the
honeyguide is: "Reputed to also guide honey badgers, but this has
never been confirmed."
Concluding Remarks
The new evidence from the study at Stone Hills suggests strongly, and
may even be proof, that there was innate recognition of the adolescent
badger by adult and juvenile honeyguides. It is conceivable that this
relates to nutritional benefit for the bird when badgers raid bees' nests.
Despite the absence of any response to the honeyguides by the
adolescent male badger, it is still feasible that wild honey badgers
learn to interact with the honeyguide through maternal behavioural
example, reinforced by the reward of honey.
There is also the possibility that female badgers may be more
responsive to honeyguides than males, for several reasons. These
include hunger because of the extra nutritional burden imposed by
pregnancy and lactation, as well as the need to share food with a
weaned cub during the long dependent period of 1216 months (Begg
et al. 2005). Also, young cubs are frequently moved between newly
excavated dens, which incurs substantial energy expenditure. In
contrast, male badgers are not subjected to any of these nutritionally
demanding stressors.
The suggestion that the honeyguide may follow the badger to bees'
nests, rather than lead it, seems reasonable (Peek & Peek 2011, Begg
& Begg 2017). However, if this is so, there would be no need for
honeyguides to make the badger aware of their presence. Yet in the
Stone Hills study, three birds, including a juvenile, persistently
approached the badger closely. The adult honeyguides
simultaneously vocalised overtly.
Biodiversity Observations 8.12: 16 6
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Final elucidation of the details of any relationship has not yet been
achieved, but the co-existence of the bird and the mammal for
millennia in the African bush would rationally have facilitated evolution
of co-operative behaviour to exploit honey bees. Perhaps there will be
readers who can help to resolve the debate before unique behavioural
and ecological relationships between wild birds and mammals are
permanently destroyed by relentless human population pressure.
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Conference Paper
Full-text available
اهلیسازی یا تغییر برخی از ویژگیهای حیوانات و گیاهان جهت بهرهبرداری به نفع انسان را میتوان یکی از بزرگترین دست آوردهای انسان بعد از ابداع و استفاده از ابزار دانست که موجبات تغییرات شگرف و عمیقی در زندگی جوامع انسانی شده به طوری که از آن به عنوان یک انقلاب در زندگی انسانی یاد میشود چگونگی طی شدن این فرایند همیشه یکی از مهمترین موضوعات در میان باستانشناسان و سایر متخصیص علوم انسانی بوده .که در این راستا فرضیههای مختلفی توسط پژوهشگران طرح و مورد آزمایش قرار گرفتهاند. سگها که با توجه به ویژگیهایی مانند تبعیت از یک سرکرده یکی از اولین حیواناتی میباشد که فرایند اهلیسازی آن توسط انسانها شروع شده و در تدفینهای به دست آمده از جوامع در استانه نوسنگی بقایای این حیوان همراه انسان گزارش شده است. در مطالعه صورت گرفته توسط زیستشناسان حیوانات دیگری همچون بابونها نیز با بهرهگیری از این ویژگی سگها موجبات تغییر رفتار در سگها به نفع جامع خود شدهاند که در این پژوهش با مطالعه کتابخانهای و بهرهگیری از یافتههای زیستشناشی در خصوص رفتار بابونها فرایندهای ممکن در خصوص تغییر رفتار در سگها در ارتباط با بابونها مورد مطالعه قرار گرفته و همراه با یافتههای به دست آمده از جوامع در استانه نوسنگی به روش توصیفی تحلیلی مورد بررسی و تحلیل قرار گرفتهاند که یافتهها نشان دهنده این است که جوامع در استانه نوسنگی نیز – میتوانسته اند دارای رفتاری مشابه با رفتار بابونها با سگها بوده باشند که در نهایت منجر به اهلیسازی این حیوان گردیده Abstract domestication or changing some characteristics of animals and plants for exploitation for the benefit of humans can be considered as one of the greatest human achievements after the invention and use of tools Which has caused fundamental changes in the life of human societies so that it is known as a revolution in human life. How this process goes has always been one of the most important issues among archaeologists and other humanities experts. For this reason, various hypotheses have been proposed and tested by researchers. How is this process done? It has always been one of the most important topics among archaeologists and other humanities experts. For this reason, various hypotheses have been proposed and tested by researchers. Dogs are one of the first animals to be domesticated due to characteristics such as obedience to a leader, and the process of domestication by humans has been reported in the Neolithic burials of the remains of this animal with humans. In the study conducted by biologists, other animals such as baboons also used this feature of dogs to change the behavior in dogs for their own comprehensive benefit. In this research, which has been done by descriptive-analytical method and library study biological findings on the behavior of baboon Possible processes for behavior change in dogs in relation to baboon have been studied. Biological Findings on baboons behavior and Possible processes for changing behavior in dogs in relation to baboons have been studied in conjunction with findings from pre-Neolithic communities. The findings show that pre-Neolithic communities could have behaved similarly to baboons' behavior with dogs, which eventually led to the domestication of the animal.است
Full-text available
We investigated the ecology and evolution of interspecific cooperation between the Greater Honeyguide bird, Indicator indicator, and human hunter-gatherers, the Hadza of northern Tanzania. We found that honeyguides increased the Hadza's rate of finding bee nests by 560%, and that the birds led men to significantly higher yielding nests than those found without honeyguides. We estimate that 8-10% of the Hadza's total diet was acquired with the help of honeyguides. Contrary to most depictions of the human-honeyguide relationship, the Hadza did not actively repay honeyguides, but instead, hid, buried, and burned honeycomb, with the intent of keeping the bird hungry and thus more likely to guide again. Such manipulative behavior attests to the importance of social intelligence in hunter-gatherer foraging strategies. We present an evolutionary model for human-honeyguide interactions guided by the behavioral ecology of bees, non-human primates, and hunter-gatherers.
Full-text available
The honey badger, or ratel, Mellivora capensis has not been well studied and data on life-history variables have previously been incomplete and contradictory. Here we present data on life-history variables that were collected from visual observations as part of the first intensive study of free-living honey badgers (25 radio-marked individuals) and we make comparisons with other similarly sized mustelids (5–25 kg). The honey badger is a non-social species and only the mother rears the young. The data do not support delayed implantation as gestation was a maximum of 50–70 days with the unusually small litter size of one cub. The long time to independence of both male and female cubs (12–16 months) resulted in birth intervals longer than 12 months with no distinct breeding season. Overall the honey badger appears to have a more K-selected life history compared to other species within the Mustelidae.
Show me a sign of sweetness to come Communication between humans and domesticated animals is common. Regular communication between humans and wild animals, however, is rare. African honey-guide birds are known to regularly lead human honey-hunters to bee colonies, and the humans, on opening up the nest, leave enough mess for the birds to feast on. Spottiswoode et al. show that when the honey-hunters make a specific call, honey-guides are both more likely to come to their aid and more likely to find them a bee's nest. This interaction suggests that the birds are able to attach a specific meaning of cooperation to the human's call—a rare case of mutualism between humans and a wild animal. Science , this issue p. 387
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