Tag Archives: Otocyon

Psssst….That’s My Torchlight!

A bright torchlight is a must-have for a bat-eared fox field biologist. With a bright torchlight one can easily identify the owner of a suspicious pair of eyes (particularly, owners with dagger sharp horns) and avoid walking into the grasping branches of thorny acacia thickets. Most importantly, a torchlight helps when following a battie during a nocturnal follow. Information collected during follows give us an idea about batties’ diet, territory usage, and social interactions with other foxes. I can keep the spotlight on my focal fox as it dashes up the side of a sand dune or through a maze of driedoring bushes. Occasionally, a fox decides to takeoff like Superman, and it is very challenging to keep up with them when I am only allowed to follow at a “non-threatening” speed-walk. Mostly, my torch helps me to feel safe – it makes the night almost familiar to me, and is a constant reminder of how visually-centered we are, as human beings. There is no way my other senses would compensate for the absence of my torch at night.

From the beam of my torchlight I have observed foxes locate insects by integrating information from multiple senses. Like all canids, the senses of smell and hearing are wonderfully developed in bat-eared foxes. A fox will pause, sniff, and turn its head and ridiculously large ears around before dashing off to gobble up termites, pick a caterpillar out of a bush, or even dig up a mouse hole. By turning their large ears about foxes hear even better in stereo (this is called binaural hearing) and can focus on their prey items. While the foxes’ ears and nose do help them locate insects, it doesn’t quite always give them the balance I expect. For example, on a particularly nippy winter night I observed one of our foxes, Bain, digging up ant nests. He picked around a bush, sniffing and swiveling his ears about before pouncing a bush and digging it up. A couple of times he dug too deeply for ants, and then fell head-first into the deep hole he had just dug. It was impossible not to laugh!

Avoiding trouble by finding batties in daylight...

Avoiding trouble by finding batties in daylight…

During a follow a fox sometimes spends just as much time patrolling its territory as it does foraging, and possibly a fox uses smell to locate familiar places in their territory. Just as I use a torch to light up the night to make things familiar to me, fox urine is quite useful when marking over other fox pee or on termite foraging patches. Ilor, in particular, travels several kilometers during a follow. He will urinate on a random interesting spot after sniffing it, then another spot, and another, and so on. Occasionally foxes are known to wee on researchers boots or research equipment as well. This is how my field torchlight came to smell. I had set down my torch to feed Ben raisins, but Ben had other ideas. He came up to the torch, sniffed it, lifted his leg, and “pssst,” my torch now stank of battie pee. I still am not sure if I should be offended or happy that Ben claimed me as his own… I of course later sanitized my torch, but I still advise not smelling it too closely.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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!

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.

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