First Proof That Wild Animals Can Really Communicate With Us

When people talk, the little African birds called honeymooners listen – and can understand, a new study confirms for the first time.

Honeymooners in northern Mozambique realize that when a man makes a special trill sound, he wants to find a beehive – and its delicious honey.

Birds that hear this trill often lead human hunters to a nest, receiving a reward from a honeycomb.

Communication between domesticated species and humans is well known, but “the fascinating point in the case of the honey guide is that it describes such a relationship between wild animal and humans,” says behavioral biologist Claudia Wascher of England Ruskin University in the United Kingdom. the new research.

“This has not been described scientifically before.”

Although the science may be new, the relationship is not: Honeymooners and people have been collaborating in Africa for billions of years.

The job of the bird is to fly from tree to tree, calling and guiding the human until the team reaches a bee. The person’s job – more painful – is to extract the nest.

The strange partnership arises from complementary skills and deficits. Honeymooners excel at locating bee nests, but a bird that tries to steal some of the delicious reward could easily be killed. (See “Hello, Dear! 10 Sweet Photos of Bees.”)

Humans can help by using axes to cut bees ’nests out of trees and by burning fires, creating smoke that subdues bees. But people are “not so good at finding bee nests,” says study leader Claire Spottiswoode, a field biologist at the British University of Cambridge and the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Leading the Way

Previous research in Tanzania and Kenya has shown that people earn honey much more often if they have bird help, but Spottiswoode and her colleagues wanted to find out if information is flowing on both sides.

They recruited volunteer honey hunters among the Yao residents in Mozambique in the Niassa National Reserve. Yao’s fish and farms, however, have little money, making wild honey an important source of calories – and the best way to satisfy a sweet tooth. (See also “African elephants understand human gestures.”)

To call a honeymoon, Yao guys make a specific sound, learned from their fathers, that Spottiswoode calls the “brrrr-hm”. Following a bird, Yao hunters continue to call to urge the honeymooner’s efforts. The call is never used except during honey hunting.

In experimental expeditions of Yao people, a honeymoon leader was twice as helpful when he heard the traditional call “brrrr-hm” than if he heard other words or sounds, the researchers report this week. Science.

The honeymoon guides were also three times more likely to head to a bee nest if they heard a continuous orus of “brrrr-hms” against other sounds along the way.

The results show that “there is communication between humans and free-living wild animals that the animals understand,” says Spottiswoode.

Urgent Work

Other scientists have shown that wild dolphins help fishermen increase their catches and compensate for catching more fish themselves, but it is not certain that the two species are sending dedicated signals back and forth, the researchers say.

Spottiswoode says honey guides are probably born with some inclination to lead others to honey but must learn to interpret the signals used by local people. (Read how animals are smarter than you think.)

The new study is an “important” confirmation of the collaboration between birds and humans, says Brian Wood, a developmental anthropologist at Yale University not involved in the new research. He and Spottiswoode are now collaborating to investigate how hunters elsewhere in Africa signal honey guides.

The work is a bit urgent: More Africans are simply buying sugar instead of trusting their bird partners, which means their unique relationship could decline.

Currently, “there is still a rich cultural diversity” on how people interact with honey guides, Spottiswoode says.

“We’d really like to try to understand it before it’s too late.”