Birds are utilitarian creatures: they are part of the ecosystem, being essential to the food web as a predator (check out this past BIOTA blog post: http://biotatvorg.tumblr.com/post/141085388130/what-to-do-with-squirrel-phds-in-ecosystem) or important prey to animals.
They are also important to other animals by getting rid of an itch.
You’ve seen the following scenes before, either on animal shows or movies
Or maybe this hilarious scene. (“Lion King,” anyone?)
All credit goes to Disney.
Okay so maybe a rhino wouldn’t sit on a bird.
But we all recognize these scenes: a grazing water buffalo/ rhino/ hippopotamus with some small birds on top of it.
What the heck are those birds?
Most likely, those birds are oxpeckers. The oxpecker is a bird that belongs to the family Buphagidae. There are two species of oxpecker: red-billed and yellow-billed oxpecker. They can be found only in the Sub-Saharan Africa (endemic species for Sub-Saharan Africa). Oxpeckers inhabit the open savannas, grassy plains and areas with scattered shrubs.
Why do they linger on large mammals? Well, like any other animal living in the desert, they’re trying to get a meal. Their meals of choice include ticks, flies, lice, worms that can be found on the fur of large mammals like buffaloes, giraffes, and large antelopes.
Oh yeah, and throw in a side of earwax for the oxpecker. Scientists believe they use bacteria from the ear wax to facilitate digestion. Also, ear wax is presumably high in energy.
Through this mutualistic relationship, the oxpecker gets a meal and it’s choice large mammal gets rid of an itch. By removing the animal’s parasites such as ticks and lice , as well as gobbling up its earwax and grease, the oxpecker helps greatly cut short the animal’s grooming time and effort, making for CHOICE SALON service!
But, Do Oxpeckers Seek something MORE?….than being a rosy pamperer?
Though commonly called tick-birds, scientists have nicknamed oxpeckers ‘VAMPIRE BIRD.’ Recent research shows that in addition to supporting their host’s good hygiene, they also trim (snip) or peck at wounds on their hosts’ hides , potentially harming their host as they delay the healing process and attract more parasites to the area. Studies have shown that the oxpecker’s favored food is blood, taken directly from a wound or in the form of a tick engorged in blood. And it is the female tick they prey on since only the female bugs balloon themselves with host-blood.
This kind of vampyric behaviors has cracked open a debate on whether the oxpecker is more of a hindrance than a help and if it can be named a bonafide PARASITE.
“I vant to suck your blood…”
So, as iconic as they are on the African Savannah seemingly just hitching a ride on an oxen’s back, there’s more to the red-eyed oxpecker. Mutualist? Parasite?
Check out more evidence of vampires amongst our winged friends from this scientific article:
Speaking of symbiotic relationships, we asked Danielle Bermudez, a Ph.D. Student from the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts at the University of California, Merced, for her take on symbiosis.
What is/are your current occupation(s), vocation(s), proclivities and hobbies: I am currently a Ph.D. student in the Interdisciplinary Humanities program at UC Merced. I earned my B.A. in Feminist Studies from UC Santa Barbara. I enjoy hiking, photography, and hanging out with my rabbit Peanut.
How did you hear about BIOTA and what interests you about the program? I first heard about BIOTA from a fellow graduate student at UC Merced, Sabah, who presented about her research during our university’s second annual GradSlam competition. Later, Sabah held an event on campus for the premiere of BIOTA’s episode on the Vernal Pools in Merced, CA. It was really cool to see the project bring science and the humanities together to engage our local community with academia.
What symbiotic relationships; parasitic, mutual and/or commensal rivets you and why?Symbiosis is such a beautiful relationship. We all depend on each other in one way or another. As an example, human breast milk contains oligosaccharides, short chains of sugar molecules that provide no nutritional benefit to babies. So, why do mothers spend energy making these molecules? It’s to feed microbes that are important for the baby’s developing immune system. Microbes are essential for many organisms’ basic functions.
Nice relationship of choice, Danielle; symbiosis can either be large-scale or small. But regardless, it has a role in everything animals do, whether it’s in the human body or on the African Savannah.