Author Archives: Ruan de Bruin

About Ruan de Bruin

I was one of the people involved in getting the Bat-eared fox research project started. This involved long nights looking for any signs of fox activity, den areas and feeding hotspots. I also spent many hours habituating these dainty foxes to a level where they will allow us to follow them on foot. All these long hours of hard work is contributing to my PhD. I am interested all the biological processes of the species, but for now, I focus on paternal care and how the hormones affect this behaviour while looking at the overall hormone change over a calendar year. By the end of my degree I hope to have shed some light on this species and contribute scientifically to how they "work"!

From field mouse to lab rat

After spending about 300 days in the field, I returned to civilisation enriched and ready to tackle the next challenge on my journey as a PhD student. I had learned new skills, habituated foxes and picked up a substantial amount of poop, but I was VERY happy to return to a place where I could drive down the road for a supersize BigMac with Fanta whenever the cravings hit.

Labwork, beautiful, endless labwork

Labwork; beautiful, endless labwork

However, I realized again there is no rest for the wicked as I started my lab work. For endless weeks it was my fate to be drying faecal samples, pulverising dried pellets and finally extracting the hormones, getting used to a brand new routine (working by daylight, instead of starlight).

Who knew that returning to Pretoria and doing lab work would isolate me more than being in the field? I would drift away into my own poop-filled world before the distinctive aroma of carnivore faeces shocked me back to reality. After a few monotonous weeks of solitary extractions, I was surprised to find a friend from Zurich visiting the lab for a few days. Through all the gossip catch-up and b(sh)anter we bounced ideas off each other before he made his long journey back home. I was alone again and focussed to get the job done as the end slowly crept closer.

Before I could close the lab door behind me, I had to burn my samples to complete the process. Nothing prepared me for the smell of burning bat-eared fox poop at 450°C.

Protection is essential in the lab.

Protection is essential in the lab. Maybe laundry pegs for the nose would also help?

I am sure I was the most unpopular person in our entire building as the smell of smouldering organic matter overtook us all, filling the halls with a lingering odour. It was all worth it in the end when, after 14 months of sweat and stress, I was holding the newly extracted (non-smelly) hormones in my hand.

As I carefully store all the tubes of extract, I realise that these little tubes will make up a substantial part of my PhD thesis (and future). I now have to wait a few more weeks before I get the final faecal samples from the field. Once I’ve finished the preparatory lab work, I can finally start the analysis of my hormone samples. I miss the field; watching the sun set as I head out for the night and, sometimes, watching the sun rise after spending the entire night observing foxes. I thought I would return to civilization with a bronze glow; alas, I extensively worked on my moon tan and it seems I will continue doing so as I will spend all my time in the lab, until the end of my PhD.

A double edged sword — Ruan

Similar to other PhD students in behavioural ecology, I spend months in the field and have to sort out the various and inevitable problems that come with remote fieldwork. Our supervisors trust us to do a good job of keeping the project going and getting all the necessary data. They cannot really keep a heavy hand on us – email correspondence is about the only way of managing contact. Except when you hear the words, casually dropped, “I am coming to the field.” This almost always strikes fear into the heart of a student. What are they going to think about the progress I made? Will they agree with the way I sorted out some of the problems? Would they have done things in a similar way? Will they be happy?

 

A hard-working PhD student in action

A hard-working PhD student in action. Photo credit: Elizabeth Wiley

Approaching my seventh month in the field, I was anticipating the excitement of the breeding season that was expected to be in full swing by the time I arrived. Judging by the number of insects flying into my face and up my shirt, I did not think we were experiencing a drought. However, my worst fears came true…there was no evidence of breeding, and no pups! This is definitely not a good sign for someone whose PhD is based on paternal care. The extreme conditions and apparent food shortage (?!) have had a detrimental effect on the foxes’ attempts at successfully producing pups this year. Whatever the reasons might be, I needed some guidance, and the remoteness of our study site has made contact with the outside world challenging to say the least. I was actually relieved to hear my supervisor was planning on dropping by. Maybe she could steer things in a better direction.

We had endless discussions on potential solutions to my dilemma… As part of such a new project, I was a little restricted in terms of finding new angles within the range of data we have collected so far. We finally settled on the “simplest” solution — I would include home ranges and marking behaviour, mediated by hormones, in my thesis. Of course, this easy answer now meant I have to follow foxes for the entire night in order to get a better idea of the distances these little guys travel. I started to prepare for endless long nights in the field.

And then it happened… one of our vixens, Bertha, took me to a secret den, where I found our first three (and so far, only) pups of the season. The excitement was tangible, even if I was abashed at being ‘out-foxed’ by the apparently virginal Bertha for a while. Of course, my supervisor left just after this wonderful event, and the problems are lining themselves up yet again. We’re doing full-night focals to collect that extra data. But very, very soon, we will be able to follow the first ‘project’ pups in our nightly observations. And we remain at the combined mercy of fickle Mother Nature and technology, constantly messing with our most carefully made plans.

 

Finally -- bat-eared fox pups enter the picture!

Finally — bat-eared fox pups enter the picture! Photo credit: Ruan de Bruin

Is the third time the charm? — Ruan

An experienced field researcher by now, I had certain expectations of my third trip to the field this year. These expectations were quickly shattered as I, once again, realised that change is the only constant. My body – used to subzero winter temperatures in the Kalahari – went into a mild state of shock when I returned to spring temperatures reaching 40°C. The heat is, quite simply, debilitating. Simple tasks like eating dinner become a battle as I try to force nutrition into my body that was already sweating like a hippo in a sauna. I have a new appreciation for nocturnal work under these conditions!

The batties have shed their gloriously fashionable winter coats and their true size – or lack of it – is now revealed in their scraggly summer fur. They are almost half the size they were when I left. The lack of rain and extreme temperatures has also resulted in some vegetation changes. The tall sour grass that used to cause several “exciting evenings” is all gone and the field is now flat, open and bare. This makes finding the foxes a lot easier and these little Houdinis are far less likely to do a disappearing act on me this time around. Last night, I had the opportunity to see a “dog” and mouse situation, where the fox I was following locked eyes with a passing rodent. What ensued was some tail-raised-dust-cloud acrobatics as Blackie was determined to put mouse on the menu. After several minutes of traversing in all directions, the battle finally ended in a faint squeak as the mouse was defeated. Blackie proudly looked around before he indulged in his glorious feast.

I am excited (and stressed) to be back with my foxes and anticipating that the breeding season is going to ensure me some interesting times in the near future… Hopefully some of these tiny little foxes will prove man enough to father some adorable pups.

A fox in the net is better than two in the bush — Ruan

After four months, the long nights in (literally) freezing weather have finally paid off and we have habituated bat-eared foxes! This is awesome, but then it hit us, it’s that time of the year… The offspring start leaving the parents’ territory to find mates and establish their new home ranges. The daunting task of finding a 2.5kg bat-eared fox that can be anywhere on a 3 200 ha reserve was staring me squarely in the face. How am I going to do this?
We managed to get seven radio-tracking collars and Brett, our vet, down to the Kalahari for a quick capture session. This trapping weekend was going to be a weekend of firsts. It was the first time we captured foxes without using the box traps. It was the first time we were attempting to dart a fox, and the first time we tried administering anaesthesia orally. We were not prepared for the excitement and disappointment that awaited us.

The first night was very successful. The foxes were all in their usual spots and we managed to sedate and collar three individuals without any problems. The following night we tried darting a male bat-eared fox. Success! Or not… The dart hit the fox in exactly the right spot, and everything went smoothly until we realized that after five minutes, when the animal should have been fast asleep already, we were still running after it. Jumping over driedoring shrubs, ducking under Acacia branches and side-stepping aardvark burrows in a way that would make any rugby coach proud to have us on his team, all not to lose sight of the soon-to-be-sleeping fox. I am sure my friend, Dave Seager, who’d joined us for the evening, did not expect such an adrenaline-filled experience. We finally did see the darted fox again, together with his three family members, foraging contentedly, definitely not sleeping. Clearly, darting is not the best option for capturing bat-eared foxes.

One of our foxes with a VHF radio-collar

One of our foxes with a VHF radio-collar

We did learn how to effectively catch the foxes without traps that weekend, but only managed to fit four of the seven radio-collars. Tracking these four is also not as easy as you’d think, but that is a story for another time.

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After 8 months and a rocky start, we’ve finally done it!
It all began in November 2013 when I began my quest to find my new study species, the very cute and relatively unstudied bat-eared fox. Living in the middle of a Nature reserve with no electricity, having to climb a mountain to get a few bars of cell phone reception, started taking its toll after a few weeks. The only social interaction I had was with the staff on the reserve and the monkeys who kept trying to steal my food. After three weeks without a single fox sighting in a place supposedly “crawling with them”, we decide to cut our losses. We’d start afresh in the new year…and what a start it was! I arrived in the Kalahari in a bakkie with no radio and no air conditioning. The clouds gathered in the distance and I celebrated as I felt the raindrops on my skin, cooling me as I drove the next 100km. The first day I went into the field, I was ecstatic when only after one hour, I saw my first two bat-eared foxes resting at their den! It all just starte Continue reading