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.

P1060142

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!

Advertisements

String pulling – The bat-eared fox story

I arrived in the Kalahari a year ago with the mission of testing the batties’ problem solving skills. They are rather small brained, so I didn’t expect too much. However, they surprised me in the first challenges I presented to them (opening puzzle boxes). Since my foxes performed splendidly with a simple puzzle, I challenged them a bit more with a harder one. Here they needed to a tasty raisin from one string with another string devoid of raisins. This would show these guys understand the connectivity of things and can reason “this end is connected to that raisin, but that one has nothing”. This is more common in birds, but rare in the mammal world. Only three foxes showed interesting in pulling strings as other resorted to their ‘know how’ of opening the previous puzzle such as trying to push the lid down. The interest was soon lost when this strategy didn’t work. After four months of seeing the three foxes pull baited strings I was finally done. One of the foxes was very smart and had a great success rate, but then immediately disappeared without a trace… The ones left behind performed a bit more poorly, just pulling whatever they see first regardless of its connection to a raisin. Well, I can’t say that these foxes don’t understand connections; so many other factors  could easily have influenced their performance, such as their reliance on listening for their food. So far the verdict is still out of how smart these guys really are. My time here has now come to an end and I will seek another adventure that was as fun and exhilarating as wild bat-eared foxes. It was a long struggle to get the foxes to like me and now I have to leave them. I know I will miss them as if they were my own.

Puppy Love — Keafon

The breeding season has finally yielded excitement in the field as one of our very own, Bertha, had a litter of adorable pups! Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that no one saw it coming, least of all, not from Bertha, who is notoriously shy and showed no signs of pregnancy. The same cannot be said of Garbuncle, whose thick fur and mood swings got us fooled into thinking she was pregnant, but these “signs” turned out to be false alarms.

The pups, who have been sheltering in dens, are now beginning to venture into the wild in search of food. The recent drought presents a major food challenge for both mom and pups, who can no longer be sustained by milk alone. As they wander far and wide in search for food, locating individuals to do focal behavioural studies on is getting a bit tricky as their territorial boundaries have expanded. It is no longer unusual to spot new and unfamiliar neighbours that roam right into our nightly sessions. Some of our “own” foxes, like Ilor, are even skipping reserve boundaries altogether and venturing deep into nearby farms.

During a late night search for Bertha, I stumbled upon what at first looked like a wild cat, bouncing about in the bushes like a ping pong ball. It was only when it stopped and peered intently at me with small black eyes that I realized it was a pup! I had not seen any of them until now and needless to say, it was love at first sight. Soon enough, I found myself surrounded by three pups and their mom, all eager for some raisins.

Bat-eared fox pup

Ears that only a mother could love?

I could see a new (thesis) chapter unfolding right before my eyes, as several questions came to mind: how are they coping in this climate of drought? Given that lactation is likely to increase Bertha’s nutritional requirements, how does her feeding frequency and meal constituent compare to her pre-maternal state? Feeding demands made by pups will no doubt influence her feeding patterns. I now have the opportunity to investigate these and more; such as the quality of maternal care, by noting down factors (grooming, nursing/feeding, ‘pup-protection’ etc) that will help me answer these questions. Sadly, all my proverbial eggs are in one basket for now — Bertha’s. I will be keeping a close tab on Bertha and her brood for the next couple of months as I get more acquainted with the pups.

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

The rabbit incident.

Nights with the batties can become quite social, as they’re constantly interacting with other animals. Sure, mostly the interaction involves eating or being eaten. I adore seeing them mow through termites, their tail raising as I know they are about to chase a sun spider, scorpion or mouse, or go to their favourite spot for peanut beetles to drop. More often than not, they’re the ones running away. Their arch nemesis —our local Nguni cattle — go out of their way just to chase the batties around. It’s a rather social affair, especially during the longer nights with our foxes.

Earlier this week, then, I was hoping to see another entertaining rodent chase when I spotted a sizable rabbit right next to our skittish little Bertha. But the moment I saw Bertha’s tail go up – hunter style – I knew I was in for a treat. The chase was over in a second as she almost instantly pinned the rabbit down, going for the neck. It reminded me of how a leopard would suffocate its prey. But of course, in this event the predator and prey were almost the same size. And Bertha was suddenly far less adorable. She carried the rabbit back and once the rabbit stopped moving she started nibbling all over its body, almost as if she didn’t known where to start… Eventually, after playing with her food a little while, she managed to get past the fur. After having a couple of mouthfuls, good old Bruce came along. Bertha then left with a piece, leaving Bruce with the prize, as he began wolfing down the rest,

Bertha, shortly after proving herself an outstanding hunter.

Bertha, shortly after proving herself an outstanding hunter.

leaving almost nothing for scavengers. He even ate the fluffy tail, which he gobbled up whole. Now I know this is horrid, but I could not stop imagining the next day’s fecal samples, all wrapped in fluffiness. Despite its goriness, this was actually a very exciting night – nobody that I know of has ever seen rabbit on the bat-eared foxes’ menus. It’s usually invertebrates and maybe a mouse or two. Is this some new choice by this particular fox, or is this actually common and other researchers have just missed this because it happens so fast? We’re keeping a close eye on Bertha in particular, hoping that time will sort this question out.

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.

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.