Odd Couple

10 images of unlikely animal relationships

These animals take “opposites attract” to the next level.

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Mutualistic symbiosis, also known as mutualism, is a scientific concept that refers to long-term, mutually beneficial relationships between two organisms.

A common example: the relationship between flowers and their pollinators — like bees. Bees gather pollen and nectar from flowers for their own use. They also spread the flower’s pollen far and wide, helping it reproduce.

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But there are also mutualistic relationships among different animals too.

Here are 10 of the wildest mutually symbiotic relationships in the animal kingdom.

1. Clownfish and sea anemone

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The sea anemone offers the clownfish a safe home. In return, the clownfish cleans the anemone, provides nutrients through its waste, and scares off predators. This relationship helps the clownfish avoid the anemone’s stinging tentacles.

2. Hippo and barbel

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The barbel fish provides free dental and skin care, cleaning the hippo’s hide and teeth and removing parasites in the process. In turn, the fish receives vital nutrients from this cleaning service.

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Other fish, like carp, have a similar relationship with hippos. A photographer captured a hippo receiving a spa treatment from a school of fish at the St. Louis Zoo in March 2021.

3. Ant and aphid

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Ants and aphids survive on plant stalks by lending each other a helping hand. The ants guard aphids against predators. Meanwhile, the aphids extract food from the plant, producing a sugary waste called “honeydew” for the ants to eat.

4. Elephant and egret

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Egrets ride on the backs of large mammals, ranging from cattle to elephants.

The egret picks parasites and unwanted pests off the back of the elephant, cleaning the animal in exchange for food. It also gets a great vantage point to scan for prey.

5. Remora and manta ray

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The remora, also known as a “sharksucker,” is a true hitchhiker — using suction cups on their heads to catch a ride on sharks, whales, and manta rays.

This provides them protection from predators. Meanwhile, remora cleans parasites from the manta ray’s skin.

6. Deer and starlings

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For decades, researchers have observed starlings — and other birds like jackdaws — picking parasites off deer, who are perfectly willing to let the birds hitch a ride for cleaner skin.

7. Capybara and tyrant

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Some cattle birds, like the tyrant (also known as “cleaner birds”), catch pesky horseflies bothering the capybara. The tyrant also gets a nice perch on the capybara’s back, which they use to their advantage when hunting.

8. Tarantula and frog

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Some narrow-mouthed frogs eat ants that would threaten the eggs of large spiders, including tarantulas. The frogs get nourishment, and in turn, the spider’s babies are protected.Emanuele Biggi/Twitter

9. Jellyfish and cancer crab

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Various types of jellyfish, from the fried egg jellyfish to the purple-striped jellyfish, have been seen hosting cancer crabs.

These crabs may start off as pests but end up helping the jellyfish by eating parasitic crustaceans that would otherwise damage it.

10. Red-billed oxpeckers and everything else

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The red-billed oxpecker has been spotted riding many large mammals, from giraffes...

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...to zebras...

...to rhinos...

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... to water buffaloes and beyond.

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The red-billed oxpecker eats ticks that feed on large African mammals and the oxpecker gets a free ride — although some scientists suggest this relationship is more complicated than meets the eye.

Read more animal science stories here.

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