, Volume 12, Issue 3, pp 181-190

Dwarf mongoose and hornbill mutualism in the Taru desert, Kenya

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Summary

Dwarf mongooses in the Taru desert region of Kenya form foraging communities with a variety of endemic bird species, especially hornbills. The prey spectra of the mongooses and hornbills overlap almost completely. For the other bird species forming the foraging community only partial overlap exists. The association between the birds and mongooses is actively sought by both parties. The birds wait in tress around the termite mound where the monogooses are sleeping for them to emerge and the mongooses delay their foraging departure if no birds are present. There is a positive relationship between the number of mongooses in the group and the number of birds accompanying them. A true mutualism only exists between the mongooses and the two hornbill species Tockus deckeni and T. flavirostris since their presence or arrival affects the subsequent start of foraging. These two hornbill species have also been observed to influence the start of foraging actively by means of two behaviour patterns termed ‘chivvying’ and ‘waking’. Both the mongooses and birds are exposed to a high predator pressure from raptors with an overlap in the birds of prey predating the various species. This predator pressure is counteracted behaviourally by the mongooses by means of an altruistic behaviour pattern, ‘guarding’. Both mongooses and birds warn vocally and flee when a raptor is sighted. The mongooses modify their guarding behaviour to compensate for the warning behaviour of the birds in two ways: (a) fewer mongooses guard when large numbers of birds are present and vice versa, (b) the frequency of the mongooses' intraspecific warning calls is significantly reduced in cases where birds are present in comparison with those where they are absent. The birds also sight and respond to the raptor first on significantly more occasions than the mongooses. In addition, the birds also warn for raptor species which do not predate them but which are mongoose predators, not, however, for raptors which are not mongoose predators. This mutualistic association with its high degree of compensatory behaviour by both parties appears to be unique for free-living vertebrates and has its closest parallel in the trophobiosis described for ants and aphids.