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.

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.