Friday, June 15, 2007

Sweat Reason

You might not expect a bird and a badger to have much in common, but in tropical Africa an unusual collaboration between the two assists both creatures to obtain one of their favourite foods: honey.

The small bird known as the honey guide is remarkably adept at finding the nests of wild bees, but it cannot get into them and is wary of being stung. Its 'accomplice', the ratel, or honey badger, on the other hand, has powerful claws that easily break the nest open, and it is well protected from the bees' stings by a tough hide and a thick layer of fat.

Bees are less active in the cooler parts of the day, and it is then that the honey guide sets out on its search. When the bird finds a nest, it flies off in search of a ratel, attracting its attention with a distinctive song. Then, fluttering and singing, it leads the ratel through the forest, making shorter and shorter flights as it nears the nest site.

The bird waits while the ratel plunders the nest and devours the honey. Then it takes its turn, feasting on the larval bees and the wax of the honeycomb that is left behind.

Unfortunately, perhaps, for the ratel, the honey guide will provide the same service for any honey-fancier capable of breaking into a hive. People, too, have learned the significance of the bird's distinctive call, and have used it to lead them to nests, where they gather the honey that might have gone to the bird's traditional partner the ratel. In recognition of this service, scientists have given the bird the Latin name of Indicator.

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