It took nine years, three continents, a thousand gelada monkeys, and countless drafts with bad ideas, but I’m finally right back where I started, at the Kuruman River Reserve. I did my PhD research here, leaving with a mind full of yellow mongoose, and dreams of something bigger. I thought it would be monkeys, and, for a while, it was. But it took an endless, snowy Ann Arbor winter for the bat-eared foxes to find me.
I’ve always liked bat-eared foxes, with their oversized ears, teddy-bear bodies, and the ballerina-like tip-toe dances they do while hunting for insects. But they’re everywhere, common as muck, and I thought we probably already knew all there was to know about these carnivores. I was happily surprised to discover how little the scientific world knows about them. We know they love insects, especially termites. We know they’re monogamous, or maybe not… And then there is tantalizing evidence that, just maybe, the dads teach the kids about hunting, that the moms can’t take care of their kids because they’re incredibly physiologically stressed, and that all foxes remain playful to their dying day… How has nobody studied this?! I pounced.
Now, a few years and funding proposals later, I’m writing from the field, in the gorgeous, green Kalahari, breathlessly putting my baby, the Bat-eared Fox Research Project, in the hands of my postgraduate students. I’m worried, as only a first-time parent can be. Can these students unlock the secrets of paternal care? Can they describe the intricacies of fox personality and dominance hierarchies? Can they pick up a proper fecal sample?! Last night, when I followed a fox named “Bruce” under the star-filled sky, close enough to hear every dusty sneeze, my heart stopped. My students did this! And I knew, this is the start of something big.