Symbiosis: Commensialism, Mutualism, Parasitism, Neutralism, Competition & Predation

Symbiosis between Oxpecker and Warthog. Photo by Kerryn Bullock

Symbiosis between Oxpecker and Warthog. Photos by Kerryn Bullock

The word symbiosis comes from Greek origin meaning “together” and “living” and describes a close interaction or relationship between two different species. It is a close and long-term biological interaction between two different biological organisms. Six broad types of symbiosis are recognised:

Commensialism – where one species benefits while the other is unaffected.
Mutualism – both species benefit.
Parasitism – one species benefits while one is harmed.
Competition – neither benefits.
Predation – one species benefits while the other dies, and
Neutralism – both species unaffected.

Symbiosis between Oxpecker and Buffalo. Photo by Kerryn Bullock

Symbiosis between Oxpecker and Buffalo. Photo by Kerryn Bullock

The Red-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorynchus) is a bird we often see while out in the field. They are most often spotted hopping around mammalian herbivores. This close relationship between these two organisms is more complicated than you would first imagine. Originally a mutualistic symbiotic relationship comes to mind as the Oxpecker is eating external parasites off the coat of the mammal it is riding on. So the bird benefits in the form of a meal and the mammal benefits by having parasites removed.

Oxpecker - Kerryn Bulock 4

The Oxpecker among a herd of animals also acts as a look-out. It lets off a shrill warning call if it detects danger which positively benefits the mammal it is on but large predators are no threat to the bird itself, so this would be a communalistic interaction. The relationship gets even more complex with recent studies revealing Oxpeckers can also have a parasitic relationship with the mammal it is on. These birds have been documented pecking off scabs and re-opening semi-healed abrasions to lap up the blood. This prevents wounds from healing and can cause infection – negatively affecting the mammal.

Oxpecker - Kerryn Bulock 2

Just the relationship between these two species is so complicated if you extrapolate that over all the species it’s amazing how dynamic and incredible the world around us really is.

Text & Photos by Wildlife ACT Monitor Kerryn Bullock