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Are Oxpeckers Friends or Foes?

An Evaluation of a Symbiotic Relationship


Andrea M.-K. Bierema
Center for Integrative Studies in General Science, Department of Integrative Biology
Michigan State University


Symbiotic relationships are interactions between species that live closely with each other and are commonly separated into three types: parasitism, mutualism, and commensalism. Students are often under the impression that these types are distinct and mutually exclusive, but on closer examination some interactions appear to be at times mutualistic, at other times parasitic. Is it perhaps better to think of mutualism and parasitism as two ends of a sliding scale, with commensalism in the middle? In this case study, students consider this question by examining what is often considered to be a classic example of mutualism existing between oxpecker birds and African savanna large mammals. After students examine data from a research study on oxpecker behavior, they then apply a more nuanced understanding of species interactions to a set of additional scenarios. The learning objectives for the case align with the Four-Dimensional Ecology Education Framework. The case was written for an upper-level undergraduate ecology course, but could easily be adapted for an introductory biology course.


  • Use natural history observations, including quantitative data, to explain if a species interaction is more parasitic or mutualistic.
  • Predict how behavioral traits are influenced by mutation and natural selection.
  • Explain how environmental change and behavioral traits affect survival.
  • Predict how resource availability affects habitat selection.
  • Predict how anthropogenic impacts affect ecological community interactions.


Ecology; ecology education framework; environmental change; evolution; habitat selection; mutualism; oxpecker; parasitism; species interactions; species relationships; symbiosis

Topical Areas


Educational Level

Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division



Type / Methods

Analysis (Issues), Directed



Subject Headings

Agriculture  |   Biology (General)  |   Ecology  |   Environmental Science  |   Evolutionary Biology  |   Wildlife Management  |   Zoology  |  

Date Posted


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The following video(s) are recommended for use in association with this case study.

  • Oxpecker: Hero or Villain?
    This brief video on oxpecker behavior can be used to introduce the case study in class. Running time: 2:29 min. Produced by Wild Nature and Aquavision TV Productions, 2014.
  • Interactions Between Populations
    This video reviewing interspecific interactions can be used in a “flipped classroom” to prepare students for the presentation of the case study in class. Running time: 8:11 min. Produced by Khan Academy, 2016.