Author Archives: samantharenda

About samantharenda

I studied my under-graduate degree in Entomology at UFS and completed my Honours, working on tsetse fly behaviour the following year. After a field season as project assistant with the bat-eared foxes, I decided to pursue my Masters study on cognition in these fascinating little canids.

Batties and boxes — Sam

Returning to the Kalahari to work on batties becomes a more daunting prospect when the research project is your own. There are considerations such as whether or not your experiments are feasible in the field and – importantly! – whether the foxes are going to co-operate. My idea was perhaps a tad complex… I designed a series of memory trials that required the foxes to investigate an experimental arena with a bunch of little boxes in which they had to dig no less than three times in the space of 2 hours. And, if they complied on night one, I needed to repeat the feat with the same foxes multiple times. Naturally, I was nervous.

Fortunately, batties are very curious. To my relief, they’ve taken to the task at hand with alacrity and enthusiasm. And to my increasing amusement I am now witnessing the ways in which that enthusiasm manifests itself. For some, they are quite content to sit nearby watching me feverishly setting up the camera and arena, eager to dig up the raisins buried in the little boxes. The fact that they hang around at all is somewhat of a minor miracle – these are wild animals and they have an entire reserve to disappear off into should they so choose. The reactions of others has been a fascinating reflection of their very unique personalities. Our highly intelligent vixen Donna, for example, lacks the patience to ever actually complete a trial, choosing instead to trash the arena like a surly teenager before stalking off, growling, into the bush. Which is why I found it particularly frustrating that Donna, not content with merely making my life difficult when she was in the spotlight, decided she needed to gate-crash someone else’s trial as well.

The fox in question, Bertha, is the mum of our current batch of pups and — despite her efforts at finding “me-time” — a difficult subject to get on her own. Two of the pups (lets call them Bane and Pestilence), have made it their personal mission to interfere as much as possible with the serious business of science. They excel at… er… endearing things like untying my shoelaces as I’m manning the camera, or rummaging through my rucksack in the middle of a trial when I can’t stop to move it. Thus, having accomplished the difficult task of getting Bertha on her own for a trial, the last thing I wanted to see midway through trial 1 was Donna. 

Bertha about the business of finding hidden rewards

 Donna’s approach was marked by a sudden business-like growl from Bertha. Now, in the past, Bertha has always been submissive to Donna, but with the arena in front of her she wasn’t having any of it. She growled meaningfully in Donna’s direction and stood her ground, one paw possessively placed in a box. Donna, being who she is, couldn’t stomach this affront and came striding towards us, intent on her mission of sabotage. Seeing that she was about to start a fight, I moved to a spot in between her and the arena to block her passage, sporting my best Gandalf-like “You shall not pass” face. Realising that neither myself nor Bertha was going to allow her access to the arena, Donna gave the only respectable response that a highly-strung vixen could give in this sticky situation. She screamed.

She literally sat down, a couple of meters from my foot, and yowled at a pitch that predicted perforated eardrums before the night was through. Now, I know this sounds like a bizarrely traumatised reaction, and I could be accused of meddling unethically with our wild animals’ emotional well-being. However, screaming is a form of self-expression peculiar to Donna. I know this, because she also does it if she happens to be around when one of the pups is getting attention from us, or if you simply aren’t paying enough attention to her directly, or whatever other slight to her person, real or imagined, is underway. I chose to ignore her (and deal with my eardrums later). Bertha too, after casting the other vixen a bemused glance, seemed happy to disregard her wailing, so I resumed filming with Bertha enthusiastically digging for raisins.

Donna continued her tirade of abuse until she realised the tantrum was not affecting us, and then carried on foraging for termites nearby, casting back the occasional disparaging glance. Well, I’d like to think that perhaps she’ll be a bit more enthusiastic about her own trial next time, but likely, she’ll just trash everything like a true drama queen. And the sad fact is, this juicy information will only be a dry blip on my computer screen when I enter the night’s data – “Trial 1 – poss soc interference (DON obs)?”

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Battles and Broken Borders — Samantha

Towards the end of winter, field work became a bit too predictable: I find my fox, we wander around, and end up more or less where we started. But the onset of the breeding season is causing more than romance to blossom, with batties popping up where they’ve never been seen, and unrest manifesting in previously calm neighbourhoods. The docile creatures that they are, I expected most of these changes to be genteel. In one case, however, a foraging altercation took an interesting turn.

One of the areas I visit is home to an odd pair of foxes, Aristotle (Ari for short) and Scruffy. Scruffy is a particularly ill-kempt vixen. While I have no doubt that at least some of Scruffy’s problems are rooted in her thriving community of on-board parasites, I’ve slowly come to realise that part of her problem is Ari. There is just no way to sugarcoat this: Ari is an abusive husband. I’ve seen him chase Scruffy, nip her, snarl at her and just generally mistreat her for no apparent reason. He’s not the loving husband that batties are supposed to be. And it turns out that Ari just acts like a mean drunk in any context. One evening, Ari turned up unexpectedly while I was following Bruce. At first, Bruce sauntered off, pretty much ignoring this snarling new arrival. A couple of minutes later, Ari tried to muscle in on some ants Bruce was gulping down and suddenly all hell broke loose. Now I’ve seen battie “aggression” before: foxes approach each other, growl a bit, or make half-hearted attempts to give chase. But this night, the boys meant business. Bruce and Ari launched into one another, the perfect snarling, biting cartoonish dust-ball. I couldn’t tell one battie apart from the other. And then, in a few seconds, it was over. Ari was sent packing down the road, presumably back to take his frustrations out on his long-suffering wife. Bruce meanwhile shook himself off, and conscientiously urinated on anything in his neighbourhood that didn’t run away.

This is the first serious fight I’ve seen in two months and it will certainly be interesting when we find out what hormonal changes are driving this behaviour. I can’t help wondering if the vagabond syndrome and serious aggression will become commonplace. Love (and War) are in the air.

Bring on the Bugs — Samantha

With the evenings getting warmer and wetter, the Green Kalahari is starting to live up to its name, and the nights are suddenly alive with bugs. Now, I love insects more than the next woman, but even I have to admit to certain reservations about this development.  It’s a test of one’s resolve to be a good, unobtrusive observer when there are seventeen moths doing the tango up your sleeve. Not to mention when every insect within a hundred meter radius seems convinced that your eyes are two delightful little watering holes placed in the desert for their express enjoyment.

A shiny nocturnal visitor just wanting to hang out with us.

A shiny nocturnal visitor just wanting to hang out with us.

But whilst these circumstances are trying for humans, they’re bliss for the batties. Meandering through the sandy scrub with a pretty little fox called Beatrix, I started to appreciate just how agile these carnivores are. Grasshoppers, huge and juicy, were darting all around us. Pirouetting like a lethal ballerina, Beatrix gulped down grasshopper after grasshopper, swinging her radar dish ears in the direction of every new sound. She tracked them flawlessly, supplementing her diet of termites and ants with these tasty new options.

Along with the influx of grasshoppers comes a bewildering array of arachnids. Solifuges, Huntsmen the size of my palm and fat buthid scorpions, glittering in the torchlight as they scuttle about their business. These too make for good eating, as another of the vixens, Donna, spent our evening together wolfing down solifuges. No mean feat considering how incredibly fast these primitive arachnids can move!

But of course, my most amusing observation was provided once more by Bruce. Somehow, while uprooting a shrub in a bid for ants, Bruce acquired a stowaway. As I stood there, trying desperately not to laugh, he carried on munching ants whilst a delicious Huntsman spider sat perfectly still on his head, not daring to move. We moved from bush to bush for about fifteen minutes, until finally, his passenger disembarked onto a nearby shrub. As the spider moved silently off into the night I smiled at its lucky escape. I have a feeling the other bugs out here aren’t going to have it so easy.

Battie by starlight — Samantha

My introduction to bat-eared foxes was a strange one. On our way to the reserve, Keafon, my wise field guide, asked if I minded stopping to count dead foxes en route from Upington. I thought it a rather morbid hobby but she explained that part of her PhD research focused on these road casualties, and the necessity of this research quickly became clear. Kill after kill we came across was a battie, by far the most common animal run over on the road. Our count ended on no less than 37 of them, and I found myself thinking that it was better for me to see these dead batties before growing fond of any live ones.

Finally, as we neared the reserve, I caught my first glimpse of a live fox, dashing across the road ahead. Later that evening, in the reserve proper, I saw a second individual all over-sized ears and quizzically pointed snout checking us out. I was getting more excited by the minute to see these animals in action, and the next day I got my chance. Keafon introduced me to a lovely lady fox, Garbuncle, who promptly curled into a ball, yawning lazily at the setting sun. Well, I found myself thinking, this is going to be easy! I mean, they don’t really do anything, do they?

Less than half an hour later I was fast-walking through the bush after a fox hell-bent on chasing down flying beetles.

“It gets a bit hectic around this time,” Keafon panted besides me. I was soon to learn that this beetle hunt was a nightly occurrence, with every single fox living up to its moniker of “battie” as the beetles come out. The second evening, Keafon suggested we follow Bruce, a very well habituated male who’d been following us around the night before. “Hah, easy!” I thought again, wrapped in the warm glow of optimism. I mean, Bruce barely leaves you alone, right?

Wrong. Shortly after we started, Bruce was haring across the countryside enthusiastically, and I was once more in awkward pursuit. Thankfully, he stopped regularly to show me interesting things like: “This is where you can find juicy ants” and “See this here? Dig it up and you’ll get termites.” He seemed to be taking an interest in my well-being because clearly I was too stupid to survive on my own in the bush. Finally, after an exhausting hour and a half, Bruce decided I’d been put through my paces enough. Parking his butt on a sand dune, he proceeded to lick his balls with every evidence of satisfaction, throwing me an intermittent loving glance under the Kalahari stars.

I felt certain we’d be sharing a string of evenings under the stars and I doubt any of them are going to be dull.