Living Together: Symbiotic Relationships

The following are notes from the Who’d a Thunk it? Podcast.

  • The first time I lived alone was during the year of 2017. I was a graduate student at Shippensburg University. I lived in town on the main street and walked to my night classes.
    • Before that year, I had only ever lived with a roommate or my family as a child. Being the social extrovert that I am, I was worried living by myself would be too lonely for me. And while at first I felt a bit alienated from friends and family, I learned to embrace and eventually love the solitude of it.
    • Living alone is AMAZING. I only wore pants if I left the house. All other times I was in boxer briefs and a plush robe. The word loneliness took on a whole new meaning as I found joy in just sitting down and writing stories, drawing illustrations, and reading books in my free time, of which I had plenty. Being around other people gives me energy and joy, but it turns out that other people are a major distraction. Being alone is what allowed my creative side to find outlets to express itself. That year of living by myself is why I started writing stories, which became a blog, and eventually this podcast.
    • But life doesn’t always allow one to live by themselves and when I graduated from Shippensburg U with my Masters Degree(with a 4.0 GPA I might add), I had to find a job. And if I wanted to afford the cost of living, I needed a roommate too.
    • I found a job in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania where my good friend Sean was still living with his parents. Sean was happy to split rent with me and for about 2 and a half years we lived together in a financially symbiotic relationship.
  • Symbiosis doesn’t just exist when two people can’t afford to live alone.
    • In fact, most people, when asked to give an example of the word, would probably picture a more complex relationship such as the ones found in nature.
  • National Geographic breaks it down quite nicely: “Planet Earth is inhabited by millions of species—at least! Because different species often inhabit the same spaces and share—or compete for—the same resources, they interact in a variety of ways, known collectively as symbiosis. There are five main symbiotic relationships:” 
    • mutualism, –
      • both organisms benefit from the relationship
    • commensalism, –
      • one organism benefits from the relationship, and does not harm the other
    • predation, –
      • This one is hard to think of as a symbiotic relationship, but it is. Predation is when one organism straight up feeds on the other
    • parasitism, –
      • one organism, the parasite, lives on or inside another organism, the host, causing it some harm, and is adapted structurally to this way of life.
    • and competition. –
      • contest between organisms for resources, recognition, or group or social status.
  • These 5 main types are helpful to categorize symbiosis in your mind, but what I find to be actually fun is to examine the complex symbiotic relationships in nature.
    • I watch a lot of nature documentaries and I’ve jotted down a few of these symbiotic relationships that really blew me away.
  • NEMO
    • First, lets start with a simple one that may sound familiar…
    • We’ve all seen or at least heard of the Pixar movie Finding Nemo.
    • In the beginning of the movie Nemo’s dad Marlin explains the real-life symbiotic relationship between the clownfish and the marine plant Anemone.
    • the anemone provides the clownfish with protection and shelter, while the clownfish provides the anemone nutrients in the form of waste while also scaring off potential predator fish.
    • In Africa there are men who venture out in to the wilderness in search of honey from wild bees. But the landscape they have to traverse is vast. Trying to find a wild beehive up in the trees in such a large area is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
    • But these honey hunters have an untamed helper. The Greater Honeyguide is what they call a small brown bird.
    • The men call to the bird in their unique manner and the bird replies from a particular direction. The honey hunters follow the birds calls until they come upon a wild bee’s nest.
    • Smoke is used by the honey hunters to send the bees in to emergency mode, tricking the bees into thinking their hive is on fire. This allows the men to harvest the honey with less stings.
    • In return, the men leave leftover honey for the Greater Honeyguide to eat. That is their share.
    • Studies have shown with the help of the birds, the men are 3 times as likely to come home with honey.
    • Other animals help humans forage for food like dogs, falcons, and cormorants, but the Greater Honeyguide is unique in that it is not domesticated.
    • NPR’s Food for Thought interviewed a researcher on the ground who said: “They’re definitely not domesticated, and they’re in no way coerced,” says Claire Spottiswoode of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “And they’re not taught in any conventional way as well. Humans are not deliberately going out there and training honeyguides.”
    • The story of the Greater Honeyguide is the extremely rare instance where a wild animal works with a human, but it isn’t the only case.
    • In the small Ethiopian town of Harar, villagers have used a unique strategy to protect their livestock from predators.
    • Spotted Hyenas are welcomed by the townspeople and are even fed meat scraps in exchange for security.
    • Hyenas have a jaw strength around 1,100 Pounds per Square Inch (PSI) or 7,500 Kilo Pascals and are known to take down prey as large as a 1,700 pound or 800kg buffalo. Hyenas are a species that frequently have to go toe-to-toe with Lions in order to eat out in the wild. Yet, these extremely adaptable and powerful Hyaenidae roam through Harar without issue from the humans that live there.
    • In fact, some Harar residents have passed down the practice of feeding the Hyenas for generations and it has now become a tourist attraction. For a fee, you can travel to Harar and feed a Hyena from a stick jutting out of your mouth.
    • In the small municipality of Laguna Brazil the fishermen wade in to the Atlantic Ocean to about knee high. They are there to catch plump silver fish known as mullets. But the water is too murky and the fish to fast for the fisherman to catch on their own.
    • So they don’t even bother looking for the mullets. Instead, they look for friendly dorsal fins of bottlenose dolphins.
    • The dolphins chase schools of mullets towards shore then signal the fisherman to cast their nets by slapping their heads and tails against the water. This allows the fishermen to bring home a full haul of mullets and breaks up the schools so the dolphins have an easier time catching individual fish.
    • Plus, most fishermen will toss a few fish back to their sea bound mammalian helpers.
  • All three of these mutually symbiotic relationships between man and beast have something in common: no one involved seems to know when the tradition began. The men of sub-Saharan Africa don’t know how long their people have listened to the Greater Honeyguide bird.
  • The men of Harar Ethiopia don’t know how long they have been feeding Hyenas and the fishermen of Laguna Brazil don’t know how long they have fished with the dolphins. All of them just say they have passed down the tradition for generations. It almost makes you think that at one point, man grew alongside nature, instead of just plowing it to the ground to pave asphalt.
  • Planet Earth is our home. We like to think it is just our home, but we share it with countless other life forms. Every single one of us life forms are trying to survive as best as we can. Our initial instinct may be to try it alone, but these symbiotic relationships suggest we may fare better if we work together.
  • So maybe finish you day with the mindset of being open to nature and the opportunities it brings your way.
  • I don’t expect you to go outside and talk to song birds to try and start an evolutionary branch of humans that talk to birds for food. But I do think this world would be a better place if we started to view the natural world as a whole as our home instead of just something to tame.

If you are like me and prefer to listen instead of read, then you are in luck. Everything above is read aloud by me for the Who’d a Thunk it? Podcast. By now the Who’d a Thunk It has reached people in 38 countries. It is hosted by but you can also find Who’d a Thunk It on:

If you would like to contact me, feel free to comment on this blog post, or email me at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s