Cross-species play is the gold-standard of heart-melting natural phenomena, yet inevitably, the cues for romping readiness can be lost in translation.
Such is the hilarious scene captured on video by a National Geographic safari guide in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve, South Africa. In the short clip, three young mongooses are playing together on a gravel road when a southern yellow-billed hornbill plops down a few feet away. Right as it appears that the hornbill is going to hop away into the tall grass, one inquisitive mongoose runs over and promptly flops onto its back.
When the bird just stands there, cocking its head back and forth, the mongoose picks itself up and throws down a few more times. After about 30 seconds of the hornbill seemingly not getting the message, the juvenile appears to run out of patience and leaps at the bird.
Following that, the mongooses return to their wrestling matches, while the hornbill stands around in what looks like total obliviousness.
And yes, we may be anthropomorphizing, but the evidence is in our favor.
Tayla McCurdy, the guide who filmed the encounter and can be heard laughing uproariously throughout, initially thought the mongoose might be playing dead. Considering that the sharp-beaked bird is large enough to prey on the petite pups, that assessment is logical on paper.
Yet in reality, the species have a famously intimate mutualistic relationship. Both southern yellow-billed hornbills and dwarf mongooses eat the same mix of insects, arachnids, and small reptiles. They are also both hunted by bigger raptors. So, the birds team up with mongoose family groups to forage the shrubland floor together, flushing out prey and sharing vocal alerts when a predator is sighted.
Biologists have even observed hornbills waiting next to sleeping mongoose groups to start their morning food search, and mongooses delaying their departure from the den until hornbills show up.
Given the two species’ close bond and existing knowledge of the mongoose's roll-over-and-wait play tactics, mongoose experts Lynda Sharpe and Dr Julie Kern speculated to NatGeo that the pup was indeed attempting to roughhouse, but the bird likely had no idea what was happening.
"I've spent 11 years studying full-time the behavior of dwarf mongooses, but I've never seen them invite play from a bird before,” she said.
Although this event was novel, other mongooses could soon be displaying the same fun-loving antics, according to researchers at the University of Exeter.
Pups of the species are cared for, one-on-one, by a non-parent adult from the 20-odd member group until they mature. After following many such duos over time, the team found that behavior passed from each “escort” sticks with the pup for a lifetime.
[H/T: National Geographic]