The symbiotic relationship between red-billed oxpeckers and rhinos in Sub-Saharan Africa is well documented. Oxpeckers are usually found resting on rhino’s backs, helping the giant to get rid of various parasites while also feeding themselves in the process. However, the latest study found that there might be more to this intriguing relationship.
In his most recent paper, Roan Plotz, a researcher at Melbourne’s Victoria University, argues that oxpeckers are not only keeping the parasites away from rhinos, but are also acting as their alarms. Plotz’s research found that the birds are known to be warning rhinos when humans approach, which might help them against poachers.
Plotz spent significant time observing black rhinos in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park for his doctoral thesis. During his observations, he found that the rhinos that he was able to inspect closer usually didn’t have oxpeckers on their back. Those that did would quickly run away.
After noticing this interesting behavior, Plotz concluded that oxpeckers are warning rhinos about the presence of humans. Unlike rhinos, oxpeckers have excellent eyesight and can quickly spot an intruder.
To test his theory, Plotz did several experiments and tests over the course of several years. The results were surprising.
The rhinos who had oxpeckers on their back were a lot harder to track, and even when Plotz managed to find them, the animal showed signs of noticing a person is nearby. Also, the number of birds exponentially increased the animal’s awareness.
On the other hand, rhinos without oxpeckers were a lot easier to track, and they only noticed human presence around 23 percent of the time.
The final summary of the results is that oxpeckers help rhinos to stay low and are reducing the likelihood of seeing them by 50 percent.
According to Plotz, his results indicate that oxpeckers could play a significant role in the fight against poachers. Introducing more of these birds into areas with increased poaching activities would give rhinos a better chance of survival.
Poachers are guilty for the death of hundreds of rhinos each year, causing them to become critically endangered animals and face extinction.