A new mutualism: mongooses clean warthogs

How could you resist a headline like this? (Click on it to go to the Inkfish site.)

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And even better, Preston calls attention to an article in this newsletter (free download from DropBox; I love these specialized newsletters):


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Which contains this tersely but accurately titled article:

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And, to save you the trouble, here’s that BBC video:

This of course resembles the well-known mutualism involving cleaner fish and their “cleanees” on coral reefs. That’s a pure mutualism, which involves both evolution (tolerance of the cleanee for the cleaner, standing still and opening your mouth while being cleaned; and, on the cleaner fish’s part, behavioral “dances” to signal “I can clean you” as well as morphological adaptations) and learning (fish learn where the cleaners set up “cleaning stations”, aka “spas”). It’s not clear whether the mongoose/wart hog mutualism has any evolutionary components. Would naive mongooses from outside the Park learn the same behavior if brought to Queen Elizabeth National Park, or do they have an innate attraction for approaching warthogs?

Whatever, it’s a really nice example of a mammal/mammal interspecific mutualism. I wonder how often a mongoose gets squashed?


Addendum by Grania

(Because I know how to add gravitas to a science-y piece)

All this was foretold by Disney in their prophetic drama The Lion King. Behold, Timon and Pumbaa.



  1. darrelle
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Cracked me up how the warthog collapsed. I’ve experienced what it apparently was feeling.

    • rickflick
      Posted March 14, 2016 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think there’s any danger to the mongooses. They have extremely fast reflexes.

  2. Merilee
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 1:40 pm | Permalink


  3. DrBrydon
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Hakuna matata!

  4. GBJames
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Very cool.

  5. John Harshman
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. I saw both banded mongooses and warthogs recently in Botswana, but never together. For most artiodactyls either or both of the two species of oxpeckers perform this function, but while I saw oxpeckers perched on most species, including impalas, hippos, giraffes, and a variety of antelopes, I don’t recall seeing any on warthogs.

    • Richard Bond
      Posted March 15, 2016 at 6:07 am | Permalink

      I have seen warthogs several times, but they have always been extremely wary, typically vanishing into cover before I could get a camera ready. I think that they would have to be relaxed for the sort of interaction shown, which would rule it out when any people are around.

      • Richard Bond
        Posted March 15, 2016 at 6:12 am | Permalink

        Incidentally, on one occasion that I saw them, they were chased by several lions. What really surprised me was how fast they are: about as fast as lions, and can keep going for much longer.

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 16, 2016 at 12:06 am | Permalink

          I’m sure the mongeese couldn’t possibly have kept up. 😉

  6. joanfaiola
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I have seen both species very often during my travels here in South Africa, and they are both favourites of mine. But I have never seen them together, and therefore never exhibiting this behaviour. Banded mongooses are bold and habituated at Sondela Nature Reserve in Limpopo, and warthogs make themselves at home in the restcamp grounds of the Crocodile Bridge camp in the Kruger National Park.

  7. Anty
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Timon is a meerkat, not a mongoose, though.

  8. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Nibbling blood engorged ticks from a warthogs skin. That sounds delicious.

    • rickflick
      Posted March 14, 2016 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Sprinkle them like raisins in oatmeal.

  9. Kevin
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Pumbaa: Hey, Timon, ever wonder what those sparkly dots are up there?
    Timon: Pumbaa, I don’t wonder; I know.
    Pumbaa: Oh. What are they?
    Timon: They’re fireflies. Fireflies that, uh… got stuck up on that big bluish-black thing.
    Pumbaa: Oh, gee. I always thought they were balls of gas burning billions of miles away.
    Timon: Pumbaa, with you, everything’s gas.

    Couldn’t resist.

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    There’s an Aesop-like frog-and-scorpion cautionary tale lurking here somewhere.

    Beware the mongoose offering similar spa-day treatments to the cobra.

    Up next: The lion lies down with the lamb.

  11. Michael Hart
    Posted March 14, 2016 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    My wife the tropical ecologist says that coatis do this to the tapirs on Barro Colorado Island in Panama.

  12. Diane G.
    Posted March 15, 2016 at 3:37 am | Permalink

    The cleaner fish phenomenon has led to other cool evolutionary relationships. There are cleaner fish mimics that use their resemblance to the true cleaners to approach unsuspecting, uh, cleanee fish and eat their scales and skin. An example from Wikipedia:

    Mimic species have evolved body forms, patterns, and colors which imitate other species to gain a competitive advantage.[9] One of the most studied examples of mimicry on coral reefs is the relationship between the aggressive mimic Plagiotremus rhinorhynchos (the bluestriped fangblenny) and the cleaner wrasse model Labroides dimidiatus. By appearing like L. dimidiatus, P. rhinorhynchos is able to approach and subsequently feed on the tissue and scales of client fish while posing as a cleaner.[9][10]

    The presence of the cleaner mimic, P. rhinorhynchos, has a negative impact on the foraging success of the cleaner model L. dimidiatus.[10] P. rhinorhynchos feeds by eating the tissue and scales of client fish, making client fish much more cautious and panicky while at cleaning stations. More aggressive mimics have a greater negative impact on the foraging rate and success of the cleaner fish.[10] When mimics appear in higher densities relative to cleaners, there is a significant decline in the success rate of the cleaner fish. The effects of the mimic/model ratio are susceptible to dilution, whereby an increase in client fish allows both the mimics and the models to have more access to clients, thus limiting the negative effects that mimics have on model foraging success.[4][11]

    (I rather doubt anything will soon be sneaking in to take bites of a warthog, though.)

  13. Posted March 16, 2016 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Humans do it too:

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