Category Archives: field work

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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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.

Fear of the dark — Rebecca

The start of a PhD poses many challenges, and I am sure I am not alone in the fears I have… will I be able to collect enough data in time? Will I be able to answer exciting new questions? But the embarrassing fear I didn’t even consider until a few weeks before embarking on this adventure is my fear of the dark.

For my first week in the field I was pleased to learn I would accompany Keafon and Sam at night for training, so my dreaded solo trip was postponed. However, even then I began to wonder how I would ever feel comfortable with the eeriness of the dark, where strange shapes can appear and unknown noises play with your mind.

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My only protector in the dark Kalahari nights.

One week later it was time for my first solo outing. As I set out in the dark my heart was racing, but I kept telling myself, you can do this! Just for a moment, I turned my spotlight off and embraced the darkness. It was an overcast night and the blackness engulfed everything. But turning the light on and off as I pleased meant I was in control of the dark… But last night was different.

Following Ernie at high speed kept me more than occupied and the thought of the dark didn’t even enter my mind, when suddenly, my torch batteries failed. After a few deep breaths I reached into my bag and felt around for new batteries. I slowly placed them into the torch, breathing a sigh of relief in anticipation of fresh, bright light. After a small pause, I click the torch on and……nothing…….darkness. Not a problem, still another four newly charged batteries to go. Again, reaching into the bag I found the batteries and carefully placed them into the torch, but still…darkness. I could feel my heart thumping in my chest, and I wondered how long I should leave it before calling for help. All that kept running through my mind were the stories Keafon and Sam had told me about snakes. I had horrid visions of being surrounded by masses of snakes. After 15 minutes of sitting alone in the dark, desperately trying to get my torch to work, I decided it was time to call Keafon. As the car’s headlights appeared on the horizon I breathed a huge sigh of relief. My time in the dark was over.

Luckily, after only 10 days in the field, I am in love! The foxes and their individual characters are simply amazing and this adventure with them is going to make any fear easy to overcome and most certainly worth the bumpy ride of facing those fears head-on. This morning, as I sit here and reflect on my experience I am pleased my batteries failed; it forced me to face my fear and realize the dark isn’t so bad… and the feeling of being the only person left in the world is pretty amazing. I imagine there are not many places left in this world where one can have that feeling!

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

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.