When it comes to on-screen wildlife friendships, the bond between Timon and Pumbaa from Disney’s The Lion King is a classic. The wise-cracking meerkat and his loveable warthog sidekick go everywhere together, which is why—on my first trip to Kenya—I looked for this twosome repeatedly during my first couple of safari outings. It wasn’t until we spotted a sounder of warthogs in Aberdare National Park that our guide filled me in on a hard truth: Not only do meerkats and warthogs not hang out together, but meerkats don’t even live in Kenya. 

In countries like Botswana and Namibia, where they both reside, these animals don’t really associate. Still, the idea of possible ‘dynamic duos’ among Africa’s fauna and flora kingdoms intrigued me, so I decided to investigate. As it turns out, symbiotic relationships—close associations between two or more types of different biological species—are prevalent across the African continent, from ants and whistling thorn acacia trees to bats and the flowers of enormous baobabs. 

Although meerkats and warthogs might not pal around, the former has a bond with drongos, small birds that help warn meerkats of impending danger with their loud calls. Warthogs have their own symbiotic relationship with mongooses, cat-like carnivores that bear some similarities to meerkats (they’re part of the same family). Mongooses have a penchant for picking ticks and other parasites from a warthog’s hair and then eating them. Warthogs get clean, while mongooses dine in style. 

Not only is this a win-win situation, but it’s also an example of mutualism, one of three main types of symbiotic relationships on the African continent. 

Types of Symbiotic Relationships 

The three main types of symbiotic relationships are mutualism, commensalism and parasitism.

Mutualism is a relationship between two organisms that, as the name suggests, is mutually beneficial and a win-win for both. Then there’s commensalism, a type of relationship in which one party benefits while the other doesn’t gain anything but isn’t harmed either. The third type is parasitism, in which one species benefits at the expense of another, sometimes killing it but often just harming it. 

Symbiotic relationships are an essential part of nature. Not only do they help shape biodiversity, but they are also signs of healthy ecosystems. Without one species, another might not survive. 

White-breasted cormorants on hippos

White-breasted cormorants hitch a ride on some hippos!

Five Symbiotic Relationships Across Africa 

They may not be as iconic as Timon and Pumbaa, but these five symbiotic relationships within Africa are the real deal. Keep an eye out for them on your next trip to the continent with Natural Habitat Adventures

Oxpeckers and Large Mammals

When it comes to mutualistic relationships, oxpeckers have the pick of the litter. These small birds are endemic to Sub-Saharan Africa and are easy to spot on the backs of some of Africa’s largest wildlife, including rhinos, zebras, buffaloes and hippos. You’ll see them feasting on ticks, fleas and other blood-sucking insects, leaving the larger mammals clean and content while the oxpeckers enjoy breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The birds have specially adapted feet so that they can go about their business without having to relocate every time a host moves. Similar to drongos, they also sound an alarm call whenever they sense danger, alerting the larger wildlife in the process. 

oxpeckers climbing on rhino in africa

© Richard de Gouveia

Oxpeckers have symbiotic relationships with safari guides as well, though, in this case, it’s considered commensal. Basically, safari guides keep an eye for oxpeckers as a way to track large mammals, but the little avians don’t get anything in return. 

A great place to see oxpeckers working their magic is on Nat Hab’s Family Botswana Safari, which includes a visit to the massive Khwai Wildlife Reserve, where the small birds feed in droves. 

> Learn More: Rhinos & Conservation

Cattle Egrets and Buffalo

Shorter and squatter than their egret counterparts, cattle egrets are a regular sight among Africa’s grasslands. Look for them in the company of hoofed mammals such as elands and buffalo. Typically, they’ll be following behind, dining on the insects that the ungulates stir up as they move. It’s a relationship that’s considered commensal since the cattle egrets are getting something to eat while the larger animals are simply going about their business. 

Egrets and water buffalo

The relationship between these two species can be mutually symbiotic as well. For instance, when a cattle egret hops onto the back of a hoofed mammal and starts searching its fur for ticks. The cattle egret fills its belly while simultaneously sparing an eland or buffalo from parasitic arachnids and any diseases they might be carrying. 

The symbiotic relationship between cattle egrets and hoofed mammals is often on full display in Botswana’s Chobe National Park, a stop on Nat Hab’s Southern Africa Odyssey, navigating the waterways of Botswana, Namibia & Zimbabwe. 

Olive Baboons and Elephants

As the largest animals on Earth, elephants wouldn’t seem to need much protection. But in cases where a watchful eye is necessary, olive baboons have worked out a sweet deal with these enormous land mammals. The dry season is the best time to spot this symbiotic relationship in action. While elephants are busy digging holes to find underground springs for replenishment, olive baboons will climb trees to keep a lookout for possible predators, most notably lions, an elephant’s primary enemy. In exchange for their assistance, baboons get access to the elephant’s watering holes. 

olive baboons and elephant

Although olive baboons are prevalent throughout 25 sub-Saharan African countries, this mutualistic relationship is visible mainly in the country of Eritrea. 

> Learn More: African Elephants & Conservation

Zebras & Wildebeest

East Africa’s Great Migration is the largest mammal migration on the planet: more than two million herd animals traveling a continuous clockwise routefrom Tanzania’s Serengeti to the Maasai Mara in Kenyain search of lush green grasses, which grow during the wet season. While antelopes and gazelle are part of the wildlife making this 500-mile trek, it’s zebra and wildebeest that constitute its largest numbers. 

Since the open plains they’re traversing increase the vulnerability of both species, zebras and wildebeest realize there’s safety in numbers. Traveling together, they engage in mutualism to the extreme. 

zebra in a herd of wildebeest Africa

Wildebeest are known for their admirable sense of sound and smell, both of which they use to detect predators. The latter also helps them to check out water, which zebras can then utilize. Zebras are great navigators, using their incredible memory to retrace the route of previous safe migrations while simultaneously employing their keen eyesight to scan the horizon for lions and hyenas—all of which come in handy for the often erratic wildebeests. 

Zebras plow through tall grasslands like a lawnmower when dining, leaving wildebeest with the sweet, short grasses they prefer. 

Nat Hab’s Ultimate East African Safari adventure provides its participants with a front-row seat to this incredible symbiotic spectacle.

Ostriches and Zebras

Although ostriches and zebras might seem like an unusual pairing, the two species actually complement each other—especially when it comes to protecting one another against predators such as lions, hyenas and cheetahs.

Ostriches use their long necks and superb eyesight (they have the largest eyes of any land mammal) to serve as lookouts, while zebras can rotate their ears in any direction—so when they’re pricked up and pointing forward, chances are there’s a predator nearby. Zebras also have sensitive taste buds, allowing them to better determine what foods are safe to eat for both parties. 

ostriches zebras

Along with safety in numbers, each of the two species benefits from the strength of the other. Both zebras and ostriches have extremely powerful kicks. Together, they make a formidable team. 

Look for this admirable duo on Nat Hab’s Wild Namibia Photo Safari.