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.