Unlikely Animal Friends!

By Becca Smithers

The Internet is full of unlikely animal friends, but in nature you can quite often find different species partnering up. How often does this happen in the wild?

“Mutualism” is the word used to describe animals of different species forming a relationship. In the relationship they mutually benefit from the each other. The benefit can be a practical or an emotional need.

Hakuna Matata

The Lion King, Disney 1994.

The Lion King, Disney 1994.

Continuing with our theme of Disney science, mutualism can be seen in The Lion King. Timon and Pumbaa are best of friends, they fulfil each other’s emotional needs. There are no other meerkats around, and Pumbaa’s “aroma lacked a certain appeal”, which drove away his other warthogs. They are each other’s companion. When Simba joins them there is another mutualism: Simba benefits from Timon and Pumbaa’s jungle smarts by helping him survive, and Timon and Pumbaa benefit from Simba’s protection because as a lion, Simba scares away their other predators.

Real Life Mutualisms

Honeyguide and Honey Badger

The honeyguide is a bird and the honey badger is a creature closely related to weasels. Both of these animals have a mutual interest, they both really like honey. The honeyguide cannot get the honey by itself, the bee hives are too tough for it to peck in to and it is likely to get stung. The honeybadger is well known for being vicious and quite happy to attack for its own gains, such as tearing apart bee hives for honey.

Honeyguide CC-BY-SA gisela gerson lohman-braun, and honey badger CC-BY-SA Arno Meintjes

Honeyguide (CC-BY-SA gisela gerson lohman-braun) and honey badger (CC-BY-SA Arno Meintjes)

The mutualism: The honeyguide will locate a promising beehive and remember its location. Then it goes in search of a honey badger, calls to it and the honey badger follows the honey guide. The honey guide flies from tree to tree calling to the honey badger to keep following until they reach the hive. The honey badger’s skin can resist bee stings, but their nose is vulnerable. The honey badger tears apart the hive and eats as much honey as it wants. The honey guide waits for the honey badger to leave, then can safely enjoy the remaining honey. The honeybadger always leaves some honey for the honeyguide.

Benefit to the honeyguide: The honeyguide needs the honeybadger to open the hive, and then eats the honey once the honey badger has gone.

Benefit to the honey badger: The honeyguide saves the honey badger the trouble of locating the hive. The honeybadger then eats its fill of honey and leaves the leftovers for the honeyguide.

Drongo and Meerkats

The drongo is a bird in Africa and eats the same food as the meerkats, they eat arachnids, insects, and worms. Meerkats feed as a group and the drongo watches on from a tree.

Drongo (CC-BY-SA Wikimedia) and Meerkats (CC-BY-SA Wikimedia)

Drongo (CC-BY-SA Wikimedia) and Meerkats (CC-BY-SA Wikimedia)


The mutualism: The drongo acts as a look out for the meerkats and gives a warning cry when it sees predators which sends the meerkats running for cover. The drongo wins the trust of the meerkats, but then will be a bit cheeky and give a false warning call. The meerkats will run for cover and the drongo can swoop down and pick up a tasty scorpion dropped by a meerkat. The meerkats will realise they have been fooled and will then not trust each of the drongo’s calls. The drongo always needs to win back the trust of the meerkats before it can win another free meal. The drongo can even mimic the warning calls of the meerkats just to mix up the deception!

Benefit to the drongo: It takes a lot of work to win over the trust of the meerkats but when the drongo successfully tricks the meerkats it means that it is guaranteed some food.

Benefit to the meerkats: Although it may get frustrating with the drongo tricking the meerkats, the meerkats know that some of the warning calls will be genuine. Meerkats have sentries keeping watch but the drongo provides a bird’s eye view. The drongo provides an extra set of eyes against predators and that is worth a few false alarms!

Perhaps Timon got fed up with the drongo’s tricks and found Pumbaa to be a more reliable mutualistic partner!

Oxpecker and Large Land Mammals

The oxpecker is a bird that feeds on ticks, flies and other parasites that live on the large land mammals in the savannah of sub-Saharan Africa. This includes hippos, giraffes, zebras and many others.

Oxpecker on giraffe, zebra, antelope, and ox. CC-BY-SA Bernard Dupont, Derek Keats, Bernard Dupont, and Kosieopp

Oxpecker on giraffe, zebra, antelope, and ox. CC-BY-SA Bernard Dupont, Derek Keats, Bernard Dupont, and Kosieopp

The mutualism: The oxpeckers feed on the parasites on the mammals and help keep down their pests, this benefits the mammals as it helps to keep them healthy. The oxpecker has easy access to food but also takes something else from the mammals: blood. If the animal has an open wound the oxpecker will peck at the wound to keep it open and drink some of the blood. The mammal doesn’t get hurt by this though, and if they become irritated then the oxpecker will stop and go back to eating insects until it can try its luck again later.

Benefit to the oxpecker: The mammals are a guaranteed source of food between the flies, ticks, and other insects that might live on their skin or fur. They can drink some blood but not enough to harm or annoy the mammal.

Benefit to the mammals: The may have a bit of blood taken every so often, but it is not a large amount to pay for keeping their pests under control. The health benefit to the mammals by having their parasites kept down outweighs the cost of the blood the oxpecker drinks.

Mutualisms often occur when the animals in question are not a threat to each other. If they compete over resources they will provide each other with an extra service to balance out the cost of sharing.

Unlikely Friends Fur Ever

Leo, Baloo, and Shere Kahn. Noah's Ark Animal Sanctuary.

Leo, Baloo, and Shere Kahn. Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary.

Many of the internet sensations of unlikely animal friends seem to be a result of a mutualism based on emotional needs. There was a recorded instance of a lioness adopting a baby antelope, an animal which would usually be its food. This mutualism could have been formed from the lioness losing her cub and finding the antelope alone, the maternal instinct was stronger than the kill instinct. Another case of a lion, a tiger, and bear (oh my!) called Leo, Shere Kahn, and Baloo were rescued from a drug dealer who had abused them, the traumatic experience and their recovery experience together has made them inseparable.

Animals compete over food, shelter, and mates. If there is enough of these resources to go round, or other animals are not threats to these resources, then animals can often tolerate if not befriend each other. All the better if they can do something for each other! Mutualism is all about “if you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours”.

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Posted in Biology, Exploring Science