I arrived in the Kalahari a year ago with the mission of testing the batties’ problem solving skills. They are rather small brained, so I didn’t expect too much. However, they surprised me in the first challenges I presented to them (opening puzzle boxes). Since my foxes performed splendidly with a simple puzzle, I challenged them a bit more with a harder one. Here they needed to a tasty raisin from one string with another string devoid of raisins. This would show these guys understand the connectivity of things and can reason “this end is connected to that raisin, but that one has nothing”. This is more common in birds, but rare in the mammal world. Only three foxes showed interesting in pulling strings as other resorted to their ‘know how’ of opening the previous puzzle such as trying to push the lid down. The interest was soon lost when this strategy didn’t work. After four months of seeing the three foxes pull baited strings I was finally done. One of the foxes was very smart and had a great success rate, but then immediately disappeared without a trace… The ones left behind performed a bit more poorly, just pulling whatever they see first regardless of its connection to a raisin. Well, I can’t say that these foxes don’t understand connections; so many other factors could easily have influenced their performance, such as their reliance on listening for their food. So far the verdict is still out of how smart these guys really are. My time here has now come to an end and I will seek another adventure that was as fun and exhilarating as wild bat-eared foxes. It was a long struggle to get the foxes to like me and now I have to leave them. I know I will miss them as if they were my own.
Nights with the batties can become quite social, as they’re constantly interacting with other animals. Sure, mostly the interaction involves eating or being eaten. I adore seeing them mow through termites, their tail raising as I know they are about to chase a sun spider, scorpion or mouse, or go to their favourite spot for peanut beetles to drop. More often than not, they’re the ones running away. Their arch nemesis —our local Nguni cattle — go out of their way just to chase the batties around. It’s a rather social affair, especially during the longer nights with our foxes.
Earlier this week, then, I was hoping to see another entertaining rodent chase when I spotted a sizable rabbit right next to our skittish little Bertha. But the moment I saw Bertha’s tail go up – hunter style – I knew I was in for a treat. The chase was over in a second as she almost instantly pinned the rabbit down, going for the neck. It reminded me of how a leopard would suffocate its prey. But of course, in this event the predator and prey were almost the same size. And Bertha was suddenly far less adorable. She carried the rabbit back and once the rabbit stopped moving she started nibbling all over its body, almost as if she didn’t known where to start… Eventually, after playing with her food a little while, she managed to get past the fur. After having a couple of mouthfuls, good old Bruce came along. Bertha then left with a piece, leaving Bruce with the prize, as he began wolfing down the rest,
leaving almost nothing for scavengers. He even ate the fluffy tail, which he gobbled up whole. Now I know this is horrid, but I could not stop imagining the next day’s fecal samples, all wrapped in fluffiness. Despite its goriness, this was actually a very exciting night – nobody that I know of has ever seen rabbit on the bat-eared foxes’ menus. It’s usually invertebrates and maybe a mouse or two. Is this some new choice by this particular fox, or is this actually common and other researchers have just missed this because it happens so fast? We’re keeping a close eye on Bertha in particular, hoping that time will sort this question out.
For the last month and a half I have been running around presenting bat-eared foxes with a strange contraption. I was trying to see how quickly these wild animals learn to find food in a way they’ve never had to do before – none of these guys have ever seen a puzzle quite like this. They either had to pull a string or push a lever to get to the tasty, tasty raisins inside a heavy Perspex box. My thoughts at the start were that they would probably only solve it after three or four tries, but oh, how wrong I was! They approached the object a bit warily at first, which is expected for any creature with some sense. They investigated, sniffed, and even bit the puzzle to figure it out, and then the most amazing thing happened: many of them solved it on the first try. Was the puzzle too easy, or were the bat-eared foxes just too smart? I gained some respect for the bat-eared foxes on the night when a Cape fox (who also likes raisins), happened to pass along the puzzle. In contrast to the bat-eared foxes, the Cape fox investigated a little bit, but never came close to opening the box. Right now, I think it’s tenacity and curiosity that made the bat-eared foxes more successful, but quantifying “tenacity” and “curiosity” is a whole story on its own. I’m leaving the field for a short while to go and challenge some sanctuary foxes with this same puzzle. Perhaps I can see if this cleverness is simply innate to all bat-eared foxes, or if my population is something special. I know if I leave here for a couple of months that I will miss my cunning foxy friends.
I am currently in the Northern Cape with bat-eared foxes for friends. This all started in my Honours year (at the University of Pretoria), when I saw the opportunity to work on canines, my lifelong dream. I saw a flyer promoting a Masters Degree for working on bat-eared foxes and I was like, I am game, let’s to it. Next thing I know I arrived in the Northern Cape of South Africa surrounded by bat-eared foxes that don’t want to be my friends. In the beginning, I panicked a bit… After searching for the foxes for five nights, I decided to play the waiting game. So, one night, I waited near a favourite spot for my so-called friends. Eventually some got curious enough to see what I was all about and closer and closer they got till eventually I had to smile and say, this could actually work. A few nights later I had a feeding station going to let them get used to me and allow me to call them to come to me and get a reward for their efforts. These feeding stations were probably the most fun I have had with these animals, just observing them and how they interact was like watching a play from the front row seat. Some even had the audacity to growl at me a couple of meters away – didn’t they realize I’m four times their size? So after two months of waiting and following and waiting again, I had enough individuals that I could identify them individually, and thus determine what research I can do on them. For the time being, I can probably determine how smart these guys are. So I conjured up a puzzle-box, which even the reserve manager’s dogs are struggling to open. The foxes will have to pull a string or push a lever to get to the tasty, tasty raisins inside. So, my job now is to stop the feeding and start the testing. I’m crossing my fingers, trusting that my new friends are smarter than the average curious dog.