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10 Unusual Examples of Mutualism Observed in the Animal Kingdom

Mutualism

Animals can be quite fascinating creatures. Even though they do not have the same thinking capacity as humans, they have a way of solving their day-to-day problems. Some animals mutually coexist with other animals of different species. In this type of arrangement, both animals benefit from each other indirectly. From having play-dates together, hunting together, cleaning, to security, below are 10 unusual animal relationships observed in the animal kingdom. This relationship is called “mutualism.”

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1. Ravens and wolves exhibit unusual animal mutualism. They mutually benefit from each other in that the ravens guide the wolf to a carcass. In return, the raven gets food from the wolf’s effort of splitting the carcass open.

Wolf and Ravens
Image credits: Whiteeolfpack

Ravens and wolves have a spot in both legends and facts. A symbiotic relationship between a wolf and a raven has been proven. The two animals exhibit fascinating collaboration where they both benefit mutually.  Wolves and ravens have not only been observed playing together but also hunt together. Wherever there is a carcass, there is a wolf and a raven. The reason for this odd phenomena is that ravens help wolves ward off predators from attacking the wolves, and in return, they get a share of the carcass. ‌ In some instances, the ravens will lead the wolves to prey or carcass. The wolf will do the hard job of tearing the meat apart making it easier for the ravens to get at the food. Ravens use their unique vocals to alert the wolves. ‌

Research done by biologists in Yellowstone National park showed that on average a total of 30 ravens are present in a wolves carcass. A record of up to 135 ravens has been captured savoring on a wolves’ prey. Even though the ravens are smaller than the wolves, they whisk away the bigger chunks of the carcass, leaving the desperate wolf with a small portion of the food. However, wolves have devised ways of curbing this situation. They move in packs to minimize the amount of food lost to ravens. When not hunting, ravens tease the wolves and play with the pups. (source)

2. Giant tarantulas exhibit a mutual relationship with tiny frogs.  The small frogs protect the tarantula’s eggs in exchange for a safe environment.

Although giant tarantulas could potentially prey on the tiny frogs (michrolyd), they have an exceptionally exhibited mutual relationship. Research done across various countries like Peru, India and Srilanka have revealed that the small frogs felt much safer with a giant tarantula around. In some cases, the tiny frogs live together with the giant tarantulas. Surprisingly, giant tarantulas have a way of recognizing their mutual friend from other frogs. They identify their partners using chemical cues. The tiny frog’s skin is made up of unsavory toxins hence the reason why tarantulas do not eat them. In some instance, the tarantulas pick the tiny frogs and carefully examine them using their mouth.

How these two animals benefit from each other is fascinating. The giant tarantula offers protection to the tiny frog from being eaten by snakes and other arthropods. On the other hand, the small frog eats ants in tarantula’s nest protecting the eggs. The little frog also gets food by eating insects that frequent the tarantula’s nests. Primarily, they both benefit from each other. (12)

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3. Sloths have green fur due to the presence of algae. This is a symbiotic relationship between the sloth and algae. The green fur helps the sloth in camouflaging, while the algae get a place to grow. 

Sloth and Algae
Image credits: Roy Luck/Flickr

Sloths are one of the slowest-moving and lazy animals. These creatures take a minute to cover a distance of two meters. To add to that, they sleep for over twenty hours hanging upside down in the tallest trees in the jungle. But, it’s not its speed and laziness that has baffled researchers but rather their odd, green fur. Sloths’ hair turns green during the rainy season and brown during dry seasons. The researchers sought to understand this unusual phenomenon. Here is what they found out.

Sloths have long and coarse fur that makes an ideal environment for fungi and algae to grow. The fur traps water accelerating the growth of the algae. During the rainy season, the sloth’s fur turns green due to the presence of algae making it hard for predators to locate them. And during the dry season, the hair turns brown to look exactly like the dry plants around them. Camouflaging protects the sloth from predators, and in return, the algae have a place to grow.

The study, by researchers from the University of Helsinki, looked at the fur and algae at a molecular level to examine this relationship. Research done at a molecular level showed that the presence of moths, cockroaches, and other insects accelerated the growth of algae. Surprisingly, the sloth will eventually feed on the algae supplementing its vegan diet. Young sloths get algae directly from its mother at birth. (12)

4. The hornbill offers the security system to the mongoose as it forages on the ground. Mongoose will provide food to the hornbill as a way of saying thank you.

Hornbill and Dwarf
Image credits: Phil/Flickr

Ravens and wolves are not the only animals with unique collaborations. Hornbills and dwarf mongoose, too, form the “best friends forever” type of relationship. These two animals not only share play-dates but also have fascinating food-hunting escapades together. The yellow-billed hornbill and the dwarf mongoose have a typical diet fattening up on crickets, grasshoppers, beetles, and locusts, and for this reason, they are mostly seen together foraging in the shrubs. 

When the mongoose is hunting on the ground, the hornbill perches itself on a shrub grabbing any insect coming from the land disturbed by the mongoose. In return, the hornbill offers security to the mongoose by alerting them about a predator nearby. The mongoose can then quickly scampers for safety, avoiding being turned into a meal. This mutualism is so stable that in some cases, the birds go near the mounds where the mongoose spent the night and supposedly wake them up to go hunt together. Should the hornbill delay their daily visits, the mongoose will appear restless and insecure. After a heavy meal, both the mongeese and the hornbills head over to their playing grounds and look to tease each other. Extreme, right? (12, 3)

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5. Leafcutter ants do not eat leaves. They use the leaves to cultivate fungi and later feed on the fungi. The fungi will get a place to live while the leafcutter ants get food by eating the fungi.

Leaf cutter Ants and Fungus
Image credits: Don Parsons/Currie Lab

Leaf-cutter ants are known as the busiest organisms on earth. These tiny creatures work in a systematic and organized manner throughout their entire lives. Usually, they live in colonies of up to ten million ants and work in clusters. But, did you know that the leaf cutter ants do not eat the leaves they cut? Yes, leaf-cutter ants use the leaves to cultivate their gardens and later consume food from the garden.

 The queen has the responsibility of laying eggs, while the rest of the colony does the hard job of finding food. Another group of leaf-cutter ants protect the nest, “workers” cut and collect the leaves, while a smaller group of ants tend to the fungal garden. They chew and integrate the leaves to the fungi. Another group of ants does clean up within the fungus garden. Typically, they carry away the waste products to keep the garden clean. Also, the ants release antibiotics that help fight diseases in the garden.

Researchers concluded that this phenomenon is a type of mutualism. The fungi benefit from the nutrients brought in by the ants to the garden. In return, the ants get food when the fungi are ready for consumption. Just like humans, the leaf-cutter ants cultivate their food. (12)

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