Beneficial Partnerships in the Animal World
SHAKESPEARE wrote, “Nature teaches beasts to know their friends.” And, indeed, there are many beneficial partnerships in the animal world. One of these involves the oxpecker bird, a resident of South Africa.
Approximately eight inches [20 cm] long, this bird is endowed with a broad, thickened yellow or red beak, short legs, and powerful claws. It is usually found sitting atop large game animals like hippos and on domestic cattle. Why? The oxpecker is busy exploring every crevice and wrinkle in their hides, seeking to rid its hosts of harmful ticks. Its work, however, is not without recompense, for these ticks are the oxpecker’s chief food source.
Both man and beast benefit from the oxpecker’s services. Ornithologist Oliver Austin, Jr., notes that “Bushmen and primitive farmers value [oxpeckers] for ridding their cattle of ticks.” To African game hunters, though, oxpeckers are a nuisance. How so? Imagine a hunter stealthily closing within striking distance of his quarry. Suddenly, up flies the vigilant sentinel—the oxpecker bird! With clamorous, agitating cries, the oxpecker now alerts its partner that danger is near. Away flees the game!
The Flower Animal and the Shrimp
Another unusual relationship is that of the sea anemone and the anemone shrimp. The sea anemone is an invertebrate sometimes referred to as a ‘flower animal.’ To many small creatures and fish, a brush with this underwater beauty means certain death. Each of its tentacles can deliver a poisonous sting, immobilizing its victim. The anemone pulls the victim into its mouth at the base of its tentacles.
The anemone shrimp, however, is not affected by the stinging tentacles and lives securely among them. In this symbiotic relationship, the shrimp is protected from predators and provided food as it scavenges scraps of leftovers from the anemone. In turn, the anemone apparently benefits from the cleanup services of the anemone shrimp.
Other Partners at Sea
Fish, like humans, are subject to infection and disease. But can a fish take preventive measures to stay healthy? Yes, indeed, for some have formed an alliance with what is called the cleaner, or barber, fish. This tiny denizen of the deep is eagerly sought after by groupers, eels, rays, and sharks.
Just visualize these carnivores lined up at undersea cleaner stations, waiting their turn. A huge shark is first. The cleaner fish gives the shark a head-to-fin cleaning to remove any infected tissue. Then it disappears into the shark’s fearsome, tooth-studded mouth, cleaning away decayed scraps of food, parasites, and fungus. The cleaner fish also forages, with needlelike pointed teeth, down into the throat, then back up to exit through a gill opening. Job well done—next patient, please!
For its more reserved clients, cleaner fish have been known to do a sort of dance, swimming sideways as if coaxing the shy fish to open its mouth so as to let the cleaner fish get to work. Soon the mouth opens and services are performed. So anxious are many fish to receive treatment that fights have been observed to break out among those waiting in line. In a six-hour period, one cleaner fish served 300 fish.
Yes, such animals have proved to be what the Bible calls “instinctively wise” in performing useful services for one another. (Proverbs 30:24) Perhaps we humans could take a lesson from them and learn to “practice giving” for the benefit of others!—Luke 6:38.