Tag Archives: foxes

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…

From field mouse to lab rat

After spending about 300 days in the field, I returned to civilisation enriched and ready to tackle the next challenge on my journey as a PhD student. I had learned new skills, habituated foxes and picked up a substantial amount of poop, but I was VERY happy to return to a place where I could drive down the road for a supersize BigMac with Fanta whenever the cravings hit.

Labwork, beautiful, endless labwork

Labwork; beautiful, endless labwork

However, I realized again there is no rest for the wicked as I started my lab work. For endless weeks it was my fate to be drying faecal samples, pulverising dried pellets and finally extracting the hormones, getting used to a brand new routine (working by daylight, instead of starlight).

Who knew that returning to Pretoria and doing lab work would isolate me more than being in the field? I would drift away into my own poop-filled world before the distinctive aroma of carnivore faeces shocked me back to reality. After a few monotonous weeks of solitary extractions, I was surprised to find a friend from Zurich visiting the lab for a few days. Through all the gossip catch-up and b(sh)anter we bounced ideas off each other before he made his long journey back home. I was alone again and focussed to get the job done as the end slowly crept closer.

Before I could close the lab door behind me, I had to burn my samples to complete the process. Nothing prepared me for the smell of burning bat-eared fox poop at 450°C.

Protection is essential in the lab.

Protection is essential in the lab. Maybe laundry pegs for the nose would also help?

I am sure I was the most unpopular person in our entire building as the smell of smouldering organic matter overtook us all, filling the halls with a lingering odour. It was all worth it in the end when, after 14 months of sweat and stress, I was holding the newly extracted (non-smelly) hormones in my hand.

As I carefully store all the tubes of extract, I realise that these little tubes will make up a substantial part of my PhD thesis (and future). I now have to wait a few more weeks before I get the final faecal samples from the field. Once I’ve finished the preparatory lab work, I can finally start the analysis of my hormone samples. I miss the field; watching the sun set as I head out for the night and, sometimes, watching the sun rise after spending the entire night observing foxes. I thought I would return to civilization with a bronze glow; alas, I extensively worked on my moon tan and it seems I will continue doing so as I will spend all my time in the lab, until the end of my PhD.

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.

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.

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.