Researchers found a rare demonstration of cooperation between humans and free-living animals in Africa. They found that people of the Yao community in Mozambique use a loud trill followed by a short grunt (‘brrr-hm’) to summon honeyguides to work with them while searching for wild bee nests.

Training animals to find food for humans is not an unusual occurrence, as demonstrated by dogs, falcons and others. However, using undomesticated animals from the wild for this task is unheard of. The interesting relationship has been described on July 22 in the journal Science.

The wild birds in the Niassa National Reserve know that collaborating with people can increase their chances of finding food. Honeyguides produce a sound to attract people’s attention. Once they have the human’s attention, they fly from tree to tree, showing the direction of the bee’s nest.

These birds need people because we can control stinging bees through the use of smoke and by opening their nest. The honey is then collected by the people while the honeyguides get the wax.

The calls people use is passed from generation to the next. Other parts of Africa also use the same method but with different sounds.

Hadza honey hunters in Tanzania use a whistling sound to call honeyguides. The research team plans to find out how the birds understood these human signals.

“Back in Africa, we’re fascinated by the evolution of the honeyguide-human mutualism and, as a next step, we want to test whether young honeyguides learn to recognise local human signals, creating a mosaic of honeyguide cultural variation that reflects that of their human partners,” says  evolutionary biologist Claire Spottiswoode. “Sadly, the mutualism has already vanished from many parts of Africa. The world is a richer place for wildernesses like Niassa, where this astonishing example of human-animal cooperation still thrives.”