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Science Notebook

Weasel takes joyride on back of woodpecker

One woodpecker got an unexpected passenger and an amateur London photographer captured the moment. Why do animals team up with unlikely companions?

Forget the llama and the dress. The Internet obsession du jour is an opportunistic carnivore. An amateur London photographer tweeted a picture this week of a woodpecker, mid flight, with a weasel riding on its back.

Martin Le-Ma and his wife were walking in Hornchurch Country Park in London in the hopes of seeing a green woodpecker – his wife hadn’t seen one before – when the pair heard a distressed squawking noise and saw a woodpecker flying across their path.

“I noticed that the woodpecker was hopping around and moving in quite an unnatural way, still making this squawking noise, so I put my binoculars down and picked up my camera,” Mr. Le-Ma told The Telegraph. “The bird took off and flew toward us and I snapped a couple of photographs and I realized as I was doing that that there was something on the back of the woodpecker.”

As the couple walked toward the bird to investigate, they scared off what was clearly a weasel, likely to the relief of the bird.

"I flicked through the photographs when I got indoors and suddenly I came across this image of a weasel clinging on to the back of the woodpecker,” Le-Ma says. "Then I realised that this was something special."

Birds and weasels are not common flying companions, but there are many equally strange interspecies pairings in nature. A symbiotic relationship exists when two animals interact.

When both creatures benefit it is called mutualism. When one benefits and the other is neither helped nor harmed it is commensalism. And when one organism is helped while the other suffers it is parasitism.

What most fish and sea mammals see as a predator, the remora fish sees as a home. The remora, otherwise known as the sucker fish, can attach itself to the belly of a shark, eating parasites that could otherwise harm the shark.

Oxpecker birds and rhinoceroses also share a mutualistic relationship. The bird will ride around on a rhino’s back, eating insects from its hide, which both nourishes the bird and rids the rhino of some itching. The oxpecker's poor vision and the rhino’s sensitive hide make it difficult for either species to accomplish these tasks on their own.

The brief weasel-woodpecker symbiosis did not appear to confer any advantage on either party. The only animals who seem to be benefiting from this pairing are the H. sapiens who get to post the hashtag  #weaselpecker on Twitter.

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