Tag Archives: pups

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.

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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