Tag Archives: Kalahari

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…

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Up-close and personality

It is my first field night in the Kalahari, and I feel like I am wearing every piece of clothing I brought with me. My body is nice and warm except for my fingers and toes. They are permanently encased in iceblocks. As hard as I try, ensconcing them in wool gloves and socks, they never seem to get warm. Most people don’t realize how low the temperature gets in the desert, but it is bone-chillingly cold.

The crunch of a raisin bag sounds across the sand, low shrubs, and thorns hanging at just the right height to leave a mark on your face. Suddenly, three furry faces appear and start prancing over to us. Three bat-eared fox (batty) pups have come to get their treat of sweet raisins. I am dumbfounded at how close they get to us. One little boy comes and pulls on my shoelaces. These animals are habituated!

I’ve studied a number of species as a biologist, from humongous (300 kg) sea lions to thumb-sized (6g) pocket mice, but this is my first experience working with an animal that you can walk right up to and follow without them running away. To walk with the bat-eared foxes as they meander through the tall, thorned bushes, gobbling up termites and caterpillars is a truly wonderful experience as a biologist and naturalist. Most science projects that study individuals aren’t able to do something like this; they trap individuals every so often, take the necessary measurements and samples, and then release the animal into its natural setting. If you want to study their social behavior, you do so at a distance (so you don’t upset any natural behavior) at the cost of interaction details.

My PhD on yellow-bellied marmots epitomized this approach. We trapped individuals every other week, took their weight and different morphological measurements, painted a unique symbol on them and let them go. I watched, from a great distance, as they played, fought, and ran from predators. My work focused on consistent differences in individual behavior — or personality — so it was imperative that I knew the animal I was watching and with whom they were interacting. This could be difficult at such a great distance and often the small details about their personality could be lost.

The batty project allows me to study these social little animals so close that I can examine how one individual differs from another without worrying about losing much detail. I can tell who is biting whom, who’s growling, who’s whining… This approach does call for an ongoing process of habituation, though, as new (wild) individuals keep on coming into the population. So, next up is to habituate as many foxes as possible. This is a slow, tedious process, but totally worth it.

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!

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

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.