Left: this greater honeyguide led a small group of ‘honey-hunters’ to the location of a bees’ nest in Niassa Special Reserve, Mozambique. When they harvested the honey, they left a piece of beeswax for the bird to eat.

Right: this Lahille’s bottlenose dolphin in Laguna, Brazil cooperates with fishers by chasing mullet towards them. The fishers catch more mullet, and the dolphin eats those whose escape is blocked by the net.

Photo credit: Left: Dominic Cram, Right: Fábio Daura-Jorge

By Dominic Cram, Jessica van der Wal, Natalie Uomini, Mauricio Cantor, Anap Afan, Mairenn Attwood, Jenny Amphaeris, Fatima Balasani, Cameron Blair, Judith Bronstein, Iahaia Buanachique, Rion Cuthill, Jewel Das, Fabio Daura-Jorge, Apurba Deb, Tanmay Dixit, Gcina Dlamini, Edmond Dounais, Isa Gedi, Martin Gruber, Lilian Hoffman, Tobias Holzlehner, Hussein Isack, Alaitetei Laltaika, David Lloyd-Jones, Jess Lund, Alexandre Marcel Machado, Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan, Ignacio Moreno, Chima Nwaogu, Ray Pierotti, Seliano Rucunua, Wilson dos Santos, Natalia Serpa, Brian Smith, Hari Sridhar, Irina Tolkova, Tint Tun, João Valle-Periera, Brian Wood, Richard Wrangham, and Claire Spottiswoode.

This Plain Language Summary is published ahead of the article discussed; check back soon for a link to the full paper.

In some places, people cooperate with wild animals. These remarkable partnerships benefit the people and the animal, without domestication or captivity. For example, African honeyguide birds guide people to bees’ nests, allowing the people to harvest the honey and the honeyguide to eat scraps of beeswax. Dolphins in Brazil and Myanmar herd fish into fishers’ nets, and then eat those that escape. Historically,
hunters cooperated with wild animals, working with orcas to catch whales, and with wolves to catch bison.

In a world filled with human-wildlife conflict, how do these positive interactions between humans and wildlife work? To answer this, we brought together information about the diverse cases of ‘human-wildlife cooperation’.

We asked four questions:

How does human-wildlife cooperation function? We found that examples of human-wildlife cooperation known to science involve the animal finding or gathering food, and the human using tools to make it more accessible to both parties. In some cases, the human and animal communicate whilst cooperating, while in others they coordinate by watching each another.

How does human-wildlife cooperation develop? People learn how to cooperate with animals by watching their friends and relatives. In some cases, including the dolphins in Brazil, it is likely that the animals similarly “watch and learn” from each other (known as ‘social learning’). In other cases, including the honeyguides, some of the skills needed to cooperate with humans are instinctive. Whether the skills are
instinctive or develop by social learning affects how variable and vulnerable the interactions are.

How are the behaviours involved regulated? Little is known about the genes and hormones regulating animal cooperation with humans, but they may resemble those involved when animals cooperate with members of their own species.

How did human-wildlife cooperation evolve? Potential roots of human-wildlife cooperation include animals scavenging from humans, or humans using the presence of animals as a sign of nearby food. Over time, both parties could benefit by coordinating to achieve their common goal.

Many examples of human-wildlife cooperation are declining, and much remains to be learned before they are lost forever. Future studies will need to consider both the human and animal aspects of the interaction, so we can better understand the diversity of our current and ancestral interactions with the natural world.