In Swahili, red-billed oxpeckers are called Askari wa kifaru, or “the rhino’s guard.” Now, a paper appearing April 9 in the journal Current Biology suggests that this indigenous name rings true: red-billed oxpeckers may act as a first line of defence against poachers by behaving like sentinels, sounding an alarm to potential danger. By tracking wild black rhinos, researchers found that those carrying oxpeckers were far better at sensing and avoiding humans than those without the hitchhiking bird.
While conservation efforts have rebounded the critically endangered black rhino’s numbers, poaching remains a major threat. “Although black rhinos have large, rapier-like horns and a thick hide, they are as blind as a bat. If the conditions are right, a hunter could walk within five meters of one, as long as they are downwind,” says Roan Plotz, a lecturer and behavioural ecologist at Victoria University, Australia., who co-authored the paper with ecological scientist Wayne Linklater of California State University—Sacramento. Oxpeckers, which are known to feed on the ticks and lesions found on the rhino’s body, may make up for the rhino’s poor eyesight by calling out if they detect an approaching human. MORE
Header image: A black rhino in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, South Africa. Credit: Dale R. Morris.