Mutualism or parasitism? Using a phylogenetic approach to characterize the oxpecker-ungulate relationship.


With their striking predilection for perching on African ungulates and eating their ticks, yellow-billed (Buphagus africanus) and red-billed oxpeckers (B. erythrorhynchus) represent one of the few potentially mutualistic relationships among vertebrates. The nature of the oxpecker-ungulate relationship remains uncertain, however, because oxpeckers are known to consume ungulate tissues, suggesting that the relationship between oxpeckers and ungulates may also be parasitic. To examine this issue further, we obtained data on oxpecker preferences for different ungulate species, the abundance of ticks on these ungulates, and ungulate hide thickness. In support of the mutualism hypothesis, we found that both species of oxpeckers prefer ungulate hosts that harbor a higher abundance of ticks. We found no evidence that hide thickness-a measure of the potential for parasitism by oxpeckers-predicts oxpecker preferences for different ungulate species. Oxpeckers also prefer larger-bodied ungulates, possibly because larger animals have more ticks, provide a more stable platform upon which to forage, or support more oxpeckers feeding simultaneously. However, the preference for ungulates with greater tick abundance was independent of host body mass. These results support the hypothesis that the relationship between oxpeckers and ungulates is primarily mutualistic.

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