Author Archives: Steph

End of an era…

Cylon's pupsWith the loss of many of our habituated individuals, we had long hoped that this year’s pups would help replenish our population so that the study could continue. Unfortunately, we lost seven individuals in rapid succession. Baine, one of our best individuals for conducting experiments on, disappeared with his two pups. Cylon and his three pups (already well habituated and starting to forage independently) disappeared as well. We lost all signal from their collars and searched endlessly on this reserve and the surrounding farms. We were left with one habituated fox and very little hope of finding new individuals soon. This disheartening news led to the decision that we were going to have to shut down fieldwork at this location.

 

As responsible field biologists, We (Steph and Matt) had to take off Barbie’s radio collar before we left. How would we be able to do this? Luring foxes into the large cage-traps had never really worked. When we put the collars on, we had the help of vets and large nets… but Barbie has always been quite skittish, so we had to come up with another idea. Earlier on, when Cylon had a paw caught in his collar, we successfully used a noose to catch him so we decided to give it a THE noosetry on Barbie. Because of her reluctance to get close to us, we prepared ourselves for a number of unsuccessful attempts at capturing her. We went out there, armed with a noose, a net, a little patience, and a lot of anticipation. We crept close to her in the red dune area south of the riverbed, lured her in with an abundance of raisins, humming softly to her. Slowly, but surely, she inched her way towards us. The tricky part, you see, isn’t getting her to come close to us, but to get her head into the noose without touching those big, characteristic ears. If you do, they jolt away from you and you have to retry hoping they don’t run too far away from you. This is exactly what happened…twice, but with perseverance and a bit of luck, she put her head through the noose while reaching for a raisin. We tightened the rope and rushed in to pin her down. This is for her and our own safety as she could easily bite us or get entangled in the rope. We quickly undid the screw that was holding the collar on tightly and removed the leather straps. The rope Baine's pupswas released and she ran free. She turned around about ten meters and looked at us indignantly. We didn’t mind though, she was free to go live her life and hopefully raise some pups in the future.

With any luck, by the time we start fieldwork again, she will have forgiven us and not forgotten the whistle call.

What’s next? While the foxes are running through the sands of the Kalahari, everyone will be sitting in front of their computer screen analyzing the data from the last two years and spreading the word on these charismatic batties. We will try not to dwell too much on what we’ve lost. Barbie

Stay tuned to see what we find…

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Threesome at Pharside (A tale of 3 foxes)

Escobar

Escobar, but no Emmental

On a cold winter night, I was walking around Pharside Dam as I wanted to just check in on Escobar (one of our habituated males) in the area. After I called for about 5 minutes, he pitched up from behind a grassy patch and waited for some raisins. Happy that he was looking so good, I left Escobar around and started my search for Emmental, the other habituated male in this part of the reserve. We hadn’t seen Emmental for a while despite searching on a regular basis, so alarm bells were starting to ring. My steps took me on a big loop in the area, without much luck.

As I was walking back on the road, I spotted eyes in the distance. I took my packet of raisins out and crinkled it, hoping this pair of eyes belonged to one of “our” foxes. It was indeed a habituated fox, but not a battie! It was Ray, the Cape fox (yes, they all come with name tags)! He came running at me for some raisins. With winter on us now, foxes are all super eager for this treat! I stayed with Ray for a while when Escobar found us again.

Ray, the Cape fox, looking hopeful and apprehensive.

Ray, the Cape fox, looking hopeful and apprehensive.

I was getting rather excited and curious about how these two species will interact. Batties are slightly bigger than Cape foxes, and from the few interactions we have witnessed, they seem to be dominant. As usual, Escobar chased Ray away immediately. Definitely, these raisins were his to eat! He had to stay on his toes though, as Ray kept hanging around, hoping for a lucky raisin, and it was only Escobar’s growling and puffed-up tail that stood between him and the juicy treat.

Escie defending his stash

Escie defending his stash

But Pharside still had surprises in store for me that night, as another batty suddenly approached. To my delight it turned out to be Emmental! He was looking extremely healthy and robust compared to Escobar, so I was certain Escobar would now have to give up his stash. Escobar thought so too. He crouched down, growling, tail raised and puffed up, in a very submissive position. But within a fraction of a second, the tables were turned. Escobar jumped up and started a fierce fight with Emmental, eventually winning and chasing the bigger fox away. And for the next 30min, I was in the company of these three foxes.
When Emmental finally started to drift away, I simply could not follow him, as both Ray and Escobar were on my heels! It was a very peculiar stand off, with both of them circling me whenever I paused for a second, and Ray trying to keep his distance form Escobar. I was impressed by Ray’s tenacity.

Walking back to the car, I started wondering. How is dominance established between batties? Is the hierarchy stable or variable through time? What are the benefits of being dominant and the costs of being subordinate? Is it access to the best foraging spots? Or to more mating opportunities? These animals tend to forage together so socially – is there even a proper hierarchy? Is there any way that a Cape fox could beat up a battie? And I realized I had my work cut out for me: I need to habituate plenty more foxes during a very cold, long winter…

A week of firsts — Stephanie

This is it, the end of my first week in the field in the Kuruman River Reserve working as a post-doc on bat eared foxes. And I must say, it was filled with first times.

To start with, despite having work in the African bush for nearly 6 years, it was the first time ever that I went out wondering on my own at night armed only with… a torch and a packet of raisins! Coming from lions and hyaenas country (and actually many more dangerous animals, I used to work in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe), I must say it’s quite unsettling… I had to refrain from freaking out whenever I heard a noise and to convince myself that no, every pair of shining eyes I see in the beam of my spotlight is NOT something that will try to eat me or charge me!

Who knows what lurks behind each set of eyes?

Who knows what lurks behind each set of eyes?

The good thing is, you tend to relax quite quickly and rather enjoy the silence of the night with only the stars watching over you. The “bad” thing is, you also have to stay focused because you are still in the middle of the bush. There are snakes, dangerously large holes dug out by springhares and aardvarks, and the possibility of encountering scorpions or spiny mammals (you don’t want to surprise a porcupine at night!).

Now, I was talking of several firsts: here is the second one. This was my first time baby-sitting a drugged fox! As part of my work here, I have to remove radio collars from our dear batties. They are several ways to do that. Because these foxes are habituated, they come quite close to us, especially when we give them raisins! So our first plan was to lure the female Donna in a cage with raisins. It worked quite well, but we found that she fought pretty hard in the cage and I struggled to handle her from there. It’s amazing how strong these little creatures are! So for the second capture, we decided to give Ilor some sedative to lure him easily in the cage and to keep him calm. It worked perfectly. We removed the collar easily and he barely moved during the operation. We then let him sleep it off back in the cage…And there I was, sitting next to the cage for the next 2 hours, baby-sitting this cute little drugged fox. After 2 h, he seemed quite alert, and it was time for him to be set free. But he simply wouldn’t exit the trap! I had to lure him outside with some more raisins! It was half an hour before Ilor seemed satisfied that I won’t be offering more treats, and he finally wandered off in the Kalahari night, free of his collar and apparently oblivious to what just happened to him.

And here come the third first: my first aardwolf in the wild! Aardwolves (Proteles cristata) are from the hyaena family but they only eat termites and other insects. They are also quite small with black stripes on a grey coat and can erect their mane and tail to appear bigger when threatened. Anyway, I spotted him (maybe her?) in the beam of my torch and managed to get close to the rather relaxed animal. What a beautiful creature! I followed the aardwolf while he foraged for termites, and he eventually led me straight to one of our habituated fox! These two species must use the same areas as they both eat termites and there might be some sort of competition between them? Questions started racing through my mind – the possibilities seem endless — and I can’t believe this rich desert is now really my office! My postdoc is certainly off to running, happily drugged start.