Category Archives: Cognitive ecology

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)?”

Smarter than the average fox? – PJ

The puzzle feeder with which we challenged bat-eared foxes.

The puzzle feeder with which we challenged bat-eared foxes.

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.

A long road — Aliza

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.