Have you ever seen birds sitting on the backs of some of your favorite large animals?
These birds are called oxpecker, and you can often find them perched on a rhino or zebra, among other animals. Oxpeckers are not stowaways: they actually have a symbiotic relationship with these animals, meaning the two species live together and train each other.
Oxpeckers exclusively graze on the bodies of many animals, including warthogs, impalas, giraffes, buffalo, zebras, and rhinos. They feed primarily on ticks and other small insects, which acts as a form of pest control for the host animals. Oxpeckers also feed on the blood and wounds of their hosts. Some argued that it slowed the healing process of the wound, while others believed that it kept the wounds clean and speeded up the healing process. These conflicting statements have led to ongoing debates about whether or not oxpeckers should actually be classified as parasites, but no official labeling changes have yet been made.
Despite ongoing debates about the true nature of this relationship, both species have been observed to benefit from it. In addition to cleaning their hosts of insects, oxpeckers act as a built-in alarm system to warn their hosts of potential dangers. Oxpeckers whistle, scream, or fly upward to alert their hosts of an impending threat. On the other hand, the oxpecker is much more dependent on its host, as it will spend most of its life on the body of its host. In addition to having a relatively stable food source, the host provides oxpeckers with a protective coat against many large predators. Next time you go on an African safari, bring your binoculars to see if you can spot this unique duo!