Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Flowers galore

It's like paradise here now, thanks to the unseasonable rain.
I counted 41 species of wildflower while walking the dogs last night. I know the names of three!

I was so preoccupied peering at flowers, that I didn't watch where we were walking. Glancing up, I discovered Magic nose to nose with a huge snake. My view was obscured by the dogs, and I thought it was a puff adder (very common here and potentially lethal). Unexpectedly, I screamed (didn't think I was the screaming type) and dragged Magic away; then discovered that it was actually an African rock python. While this was a relief, it shattered my consoling belief that the local pythons would be inactive by now. After all, my resident red toad has been torpid for more than a week, tucked away inside my down sleeping bag.

Of course, all this lush growth is a nightmare for data collection. I simply can't see what the mongooses are doing. In fact, I'm having trouble finding their termite mounds, much less the mongooses themselves!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

When cats monkey about

When you live close to wildlife you learn to expect the unexpected.
But today something really surprising happened.

The weather was cool and dreary, so I decided to stay in and analyse my daunting stockpile of mongoose video tapes. However, my highly playful cat, Silver, had other ideas. He was in a mischievous mood and spent the entire morning leaping at the TV to paw at the on-screen mongooses, wrestling my video camera, scuffing up my check sheets and batting my pen under the sofa. Eventually, in exasperation, I took a break outside. Silver came too, slipping under the back fence to race about wildly, tearing up and down the trunk of a large buffalo-thorn tree.

I wasn't paying him much attention until I noticed the surrounding trees were suddenly alive with vervet monkeys. I thought at first I must have disturbed them (the troop often sleeps the night in the trees outside my house) but then I realised they were bounding towards us, not away. And they were all heading for Silver. My cats normally stay on the garden side of the fence; had Silver breeched some unwritten rule of monkey etiquette?

                 Vervets staring at Silver.
There were about six monkeys and they were all youngsters. They came excitedly gathering around Silver (who was now sitting sedately on the garden wall), slithering down trunks or dangling precariously from drooping branches to get close to him. They completely ignored me, although I was standing quite close. I thought they must be curious about Silver's previous absurd behaviour. But then I looked more closely. They were lounging coyly on their backs, heads upside down and wiggling back and forth. And some of them had their eyes half shut and their mouths open in the classic primate 'play-face'.
They were inviting Silver to play with them!

If you're good at spotting wildlife, you'll find a monkey at the very top edge, centre, of this photo.

 After about five minutes, when Silver had made it clear he wasn't going to oblige them, they just melted off into the trees, presumably to rejoin their troop. Had they played with Silver before? They certainly seemed to expect him to join in. Where would they have got the idea of playing with cats, if not from mine? Having spent five years of my life studying play behaviour, you'd think I'd know better than be surprised at anything, but this really was unexpected!

A young vervet monkey (Cercopithecus aethiops) in play invitation mode. Photo taken by Megan Bradfield and borrowed from here.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Meet a mongoose: Baloo

One of the greatest joys of my research is getting to know individual animals, discovering their personalities and sharing in the day-to-day excitement of their lives. I thought I'd try to share this pleasure with you by introducing you to some of my special mongooses.

Today's 'focal animal' is Baloo.

When you visit Bugbears, it won't take you long to notice Baloo. A sleek youngster with an intense expression and greenish eyes (mongooses' eyes grow browner as they age), he'll come dashing up to stand by your feet. For a moment he'll stare intently into your eyes and then he'll race off, jinking past the more sedate members of the group. Baloo never walks when he can run. He's bursting with nervous energy and he always seems to be exuberantly enjoying life.

Baloo at four months of age.

Baloo was born last October just before I left for a holiday in Kanha National Park, India. This tropical forest was the setting for Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, so the choice of Baloo's name was obvious. In hindsight, I couldn't have chosen better because the little mongoose's personality bears a remarkable resemblance to that of the insouciant bear in Walt Disney's animated version (although I admit he doesn't sing or juggle mangos).

The drama in Baloo's life began early.
Iorek gave birth to Baloo's litter in a large termite mound overlooking the creek. Newborn pups (4 to 6 in a litter) are blind and helpless, and they normally spend their first few weeks hidden away in the depths of the mound. They're highly sought after by numerous predators so someone stays behind to guard them whenever the group goes off foraging. Babysitting is a hungry and dangerous job, so the mongooses take turns, normally for half a day at a time. If a predator turns up at the mound, the babysitter, with teeth bared and fur erect, blocks the entrance with its body and snaps, spits and growls ferociously. Unfortunately, some predators can't be deterred, and when the babysitter's own life is threatened (and it's not unusual for babysitters to be killed), it will snatch up one of the pups and make a run for it.
This is what happened to Bugbear's litter. I don't know which predator ate his siblings, but it was Baloo that drew the lucky straw.

 Mongoose pups (these are 3.5 weeks old) depend on the group for protection. Alone, they're an easy snack for raptors, snakes and monitors, wild cats, jackals, civets, honey badgers and even neighbouring mongoose groups.

Life as an 'only pup' comes with mixed blessings.
On the up-side, you never go hungry.
In the true spirit of 'all for one and one for all', subordinate female mongooses often produce milk to help feed the dominant female's pups. And dwarf mongooses don't have to get pregnant to do this, a trait unique among wild mammals. Female group members frequently undergo 'pseudo-pregnancy' in which they experience the physiological changes of pregnancy (including milk production) even though they haven't actually conceived. So Baloo not only got to guzzle a whole litter's worth of milk from his mum, but could then totter across and snack from Cricket and Rupert as well. (No, Rupert isn't male; even dwarf mongooses aren't that good. What can I say? Pups are difficult to sex.). Anyway, Baloo had a bonanza, and he grew so fat and roly-poly that I wondered how his stumpy legs could support him.

On the down-side, 'only pups' don't get to lie in bed all day. Babysitting isn't only dangerous, it's energetically costly. For example, in meerkats (who have a very similar social system), babysitters can lose up to 11% of their body weight during the four-week pup-minding period. Understandably, Bugbears was hesitant to invest such a lot in just a single pup. Their solution? They carried Baloo with them wherever they went.

Mongoose carrying a pup (sorry for lousy quality).

Every day the tiny pup, bumbling about with his eyes barely open, was dragged off through thorn thickets and bumped over rocks. His neck fur was constantly matted with saliva and he looked like he had mange from all the scrapes and scratches. Whenever the group settled to forage, they'd stow Baloo beneath a rock or shove him into a rotting log, before wandering off to search for food nearby. Of course, mongooses are highly attuned to pup distress calls, and they'll come at gallop for the slightest peep, but Baloo got so used to being left alone, he never cried out (as pups normally do) even when the group moved far away. I feared that this would prove fatal. Whenever the group moved on, I'd hold my breath: would they remember Baloo? Often they'd move quite a long way before someone, usually one of the females, would suddenly stop in her tracks and dash back to snatch him up. I was convinced, each time I visited the group, that I'd find him missing; it seemed inevitable that a predator would find him in his makeshift shelters, or the group would - one day - leave him behind.

But I was wrong. Despite his many abrasions, Baloo thrived. Having no littermates to play with could have been a hardship, but not for Baloo. Leaping on the adults, he'd drape his body across their shoulders, biting on their ears, or pounce on their heads, to hang by his teeth from their noses (watching it made my eyes water).
Now Baloo is six months old, and he's slimmed down a lot (he has to catch his own food!). However, I think his early initiation into group life has given him his bouncy self-assurance and a great enthusiasm for everything and anything that's going on.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Walking with Wizard

My dog Wizard may look like a wolf,
but underneath all the fur he's a wimp.

My dogs (photo taken before my Belgian
shepherd was snatched by a crocodile).

Now you may think that a dog who's been savaged by a crocodile, eye-sprayed by a cobra and gored by a warthog has every right to be a bit timid. But Wizard isn't afraid of dangerous animals (that would save on vet bills, after all).

Wizard's fears:

1. Fireworks
2. Gun fire (sounds like fireworks)
3. African fish eagle calls (sound like the
       whistling of firework rockets)
4. Waterbucks

African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer)
Photo by Rudi Skea and borrowed from here.

 Spot the odd one out? This last item is a new addition.

Waterbucks (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) are horse-sized antelopes with coarse shaggy coats and a white ring encircling their rumps. You can tell when they're around because they smell strongly of musky creosote. Unlike most antelope, they need to drink daily, so I usually encounter them when walking the dogs along the river. Until recently, this hasn't been a problem.
However, about two weeks ago we were strolling across the river flat when we met a small herd of females and calves. The females trotted off into the trees (they see us every day, so they're pretty chilled) but the calves lingered to get a better look at us. They stood gazing curiously as we passed, and then, as we walked away, they came creeping after us. Necks outstretched, ears cocked forward, and moist noses whiffling, they followed along behind us. As we walked away, they grew more confident, jogging and jostling one another like small boys egging each other on in a dare.

Waterbucks plotting Wizard's downfall.
Photo by Michelle Viljoen and borrowed from here.

Now, I found this behaviour endearing. Wizard perceived it quite differently. In his mind, there's only one reason why something creeps up behind you. He's now convinced that all waterbucks are out to get him. Each time we meet one, he goes into 'drag' mode, lowering his head and tail and hauling me homeward as quickly as possible.

Wizard feeling scared.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A smelly favourite

Today while searching for Bugbears, I stumbled upon my favourite animal.
Nocturnal, solitary and rare, this creature has influenced human culture for thousands of years.

At first I just glimpsed movement, and then - barely visible in a tangle of leaves - a patch of soft grey fur, patterned with spots of black. I froze, as did the animal, and we both waited. Eventually, with head lowered, the creature crept slowly from the bushes.
It was an African civet.

African civets (Civettictis civetta) look like huge soft toys. Their thick fur is decorated with black splodges, bars and stripes, and their faces are masked just like a racoon's. When alarmed, civets raise a crest of black and white hair that grows along their backs, making them look one third larger. They also give deep, menacing growls which are quite unnerving.
But today's civet was peacefully snooping about for food. This species doesn't only share the racoon's facial markings, it also shares its omnivorous diet, munching on fruit, bugs, small vertebrates and carrion. Unlike the raccoon, however, civets are designed for life on the ground, and their small paws are dog-like and not at all dexterous.

Civets, along with mongooses and genets, are viverrids. They closely resemble the ancestors of all of today's carnivores. Their teeth and skeletons have barely changed during the last 30-40 million years.
Photo by Neil Roux and borrowed from here.

Like mongooses, civets mark their territories with secretions from their anal glands. Reversing up to trees or rocks, they smear on a vile-smelling, thick, yellowish grease that remains detectable for at least four months. Now you might be thinking 'ooh yuk', but are you wearing perfume? Expensive perfume? If so, you probably have a little bit of civet goo on you right now.

The anal gland secretion of African civets ('civet musk') has been traded commercially for thousands of years. Originally used medicinally, it was valued more highly than gold, ivory or myrrh, and was employed as currency in ancient Ethiopia. For many centuries it's been integral to perfume-making because the refined product, civetone, 'fixes' other fragrances and – when highly diluted (1 kg of civet musk makes 3000 litres of perfume) – has a pleasant musky scent. It also seems to be a natural attractant (e.g. field biologists in Central America report that the civetone in Calvin Klein's Obsession is great for attracting jaguars).

Although artificially synthesised civetone has been available since the 1940s, many of the 'exclusive' perfume manufacturers continue to use animal-derived civetone. This is where it gets ugly. Ethiopia produces 90% of the world's civet musk, exporting 1000 kg annually; 85% of which goes to France. The musk is obtained from about 3000 captive civets held on 200 civet farms. A large male civet (who has his anal glands scraped out weekly) produces about 30 g of musk monthly. In 1999, the WSPA (World Society for Protection of Animals) undertook surveys in Ethiopia and reported widespread animal cruelty, with many civet-farmers failing to meet even the most basic husbandry needs, and animals living out their lives in crates too small for them to turn around. At that time, three major perfume manufacturers - Chanel, Lancome and Cartier - admitted to using animal-derived civetone.

I guess what I find most shocking, is that although civiculture has been practiced in Ethiopia for centuries, they've never succeeded in breeding an African civet in captivity! (Apparently Jersey Zoo has done it.) All farmed civets are captured from the wild, and up to 40% die from stress within the first three weeks. With the rampant deforestation that has occurred in Ethiopia over the last couple of decades, I can't imagine how the country's dwindling civet population can possibly sustain this onslaught.

Photo by Maureen Jarratt and borrowed from here.

If you want to read more:
Sustainable Utilisation of the African Civet (Civettictis civetta) in Ethiopia, by Yilma D. Abebe. 2000.
Scent-marking by the African Civet Civettictis civetta in the Menageha-Suba State Forest, Ethiopia. B. Tsegaye, A. Bekele & M. Balakrishnan. 2008.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Springing into autumn

I had a wonderful morning in the field today.
The recent heavy rain (so late in the season) has brought on an Indian spring (can you have an Indian 'spring'?).
The weather here in late autumn and winter is always idyllic: sunny, blue skies and temperatures in the high 20's Celsius. This loveliness, however, is normally marred by the dry season with forbs and grasses shrivelling and trees losing their leaves. Not this year; everything is burgeoning and green, the air is rose-scented and scores of butterflies are flitting and hovering amid banks of flowers.

I'm afraid I can't tell you the names of these flowers because there's no field guide available for this part of South Africa (a bit strange considering that Kruger is such a popular tourist destination).

The mongooses are also enjoying the unexpected reprieve.
When the soil dries out, beetle larvae and other soil-dwelling critters retreat down deep, but after rain these consumables (apologies to any entomologists) resurface, back within reach of industrious mongoose claws. This morning, Ecthelion group was lounging contentedly, with rounded tummies and a self-satisfied air. Of course even well-fed mongooses don't stay still for long, and soon everyone was bounding about in play. Teaming up in pairs and trios they chased and wrestled, rearing up on their hind legs to clasp one another around the shoulders and tussle back and forth like little sumo wrestlers. Everywhere I looked there were mongooses leaping in the air or clasped together in mock battle, rolling over and over, with teeth clamped firmly on any available ear or limb.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The perils of porcupines

As I type this, my palms are growing sweaty and I'm starting to feel nauseous.
Why? Because snuffling around outside my front door is an animal that poses a very serious threat to my well-being.
A lion? Elephant? Burglar?
No. It's a porcupine.
Now you think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not.

Alright, I admit that southern African porcupines (Hystrix africaeaustralis) are not life-threatening. They're big (about waist-high when they've erected their quills) and generally fearless, and they suddenly charge backwards at you which is hugely disconcerting. But this is not the problem. I can cope with quills.

One of three porcupines that visit my compost heap nightly.

The problem is noise. My house is located directly across the river (about 200m away) from a commercial lodge, and one of the conditions of my living here is that I remain inconspicuous and make no noise.
Well, it all started harmlessly enough, with me tossing my household scraps onto the compost heap at night for the porcupines to munch. If the porcupines arrived before I'd put the scraps out (and I waited until nightfall to avoid attracting baboons), they'd trundle up to the house, making the dogs bark. Concerned about the noise, I'd dash out with the scraps, drawing the porcupines away and restoring peace.

Sadly, porcupines aren't dumb. With time, they learnt that the more the dogs barked, the quicker they got food. Now anytime they're feeling peckish they tramp up and down the garden fence, scraping their quills against the mesh and sending my dogs into a frenzy. And of course excited huskies don't just bark, they yip and yodel and give dreadful ululating howls, and it all sounds as if some animal is being torn limb from limb. Lodge guests don't respond well to this, particularly here, where poaching using dogs is rife. Thus eviction looms!

I'm currently shutting the dogs indoors when the porcupines come dog-baiting, and hopefully they'll learn that it's pointless. Fingers-crossed.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Telltale footprints

While searching for Bugbears today, I came across these tracks.

They followed the road for about 200m before veering off into the bush towards the dam.

At first I was completely baffled. They look like crocodile tracks but something isn't right. The curving line you can see on the left was made by the crocodile's tail, swinging back and forth as the animal walked. And on either side of the tail line you can make out the reptile's foot prints. But why are there two gouged lines?

A crocodile with two tails? Two crocodiles walking in single file?

It took me a while to figure it out, and then I felt stupid for not realising immediately: the crocodile was carrying something which was scraping along the ground.
It's not unusual to find crocodile tracks here, because the animals use the roads to move between rivers and dams. They can travel long distances, especially to exploit to temporary water bodies.

This dam in Bugbears' territory is about 2 km from the nearest water, and it dries up completely each winter. But within 24 hours of it refilling (at the start of the wet season), a large crocodile always moves in.

If disturbed far from water, crocodiles pursue the strategy beloved by tortoises and chameleons everywhere: they freeze and try to blend into their surroundings. Their camouflage is surprisingly effective out in the bush (and I've got the scars to prove it) but less so on the road. Several times I've come across large crocodiles stretched motionless across the highway. I think, 'Oh my God, it's been run over!' and start madly worrying how on earth I can get an injured crocodile to the vet. But as soon as the traffic is gone, the croc just gets up and marches off. And you'll be amazed the length to which motorists will go, NOT to run over a 3 m crocodile!

I don't know what today's crocodile was carrying at Bugbears, and I don't really want to think about it. The photos below will help your imagination conjure up images as vivid as my own. These pictures were taken by visitors to Kruger National Park (which is just next door) and posted on the Public Sightings Gallery at the South African National Parks' website. Check it out: it's amazing what people get to witness.

Baby hippo. Photo by Yolande Oelsen.

Fish. Photo by Peter Winnan.

Warthog. Photo by Bernard Steele.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

An afternoon stroll...

Walking the dogs here can be challenging.

The problem is, they like to chase wildlife. And yesterday, as I was being dragged headlong through the undergrowth (and let me tell you, huskies can drag), I began to feel nervous about what we might be pursuing. It's not as if I don't have cause: I've seen my dogs chase elephants, crocodiles, porcupines and mambas. And somewhere up ahead I could hear something big, growling.

As we emerged from a tangle of thorn bushes on to the fence line, I sighted our quarry: a large bush pig struggling to squeeze under the lower wire of the fence. Bush pigs (Potamochoerus porcus) are lovely: classically pig-shaped but with shaggy rufous fur and a long white mane that extends right along their backs. Their ears are tasselled at the ends and their faces patterned with white eye rings and side whiskers.
This is only the fourth time I've glimpsed the species (they're nocturnal and favour dense cover) but I was too preoccupied to really enjoy the moment. Bush pigs, you see, are famous for their viciousness when cornered (bailed up against a fence?) or attacked (by slavering huskies?). They are very powerful (weighing 60 kg) and use their 7 cm, razor-sharp lower incisors to slash at their adversary, leaving deep, vertical gashes. My vet says they're expert at disembowelling dogs. Fortunately - before we could put legend to the test - the bush pig managed to squirm under the fence and crash off into the undergrowth.

Bush pigs don't only use their tusks for self-defence. They tusk trees and vegetation, gouging out scars and applying an odorous secretion from their tusk glands. The pungency of this goo is heightened by the bacterial decay of vegetation in the pig's cheek pouches (located behind the upper tusks). It gets worse: bush pigs greet one another by blowing their breath into one another's faces.

Photo from Wikipedia.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

‘tis the season to be anxious

Work-related stress is often seasonal.

Maybe it's the pre-Christmas rush that leaves you panicky? Or the build up to the financial year end? For me, it's the change of seasons.

No, I don't suffer a phobia about falling leaves or daffodils. I just can't cope with moulting mongooses.
Right now the mongooses are shedding their summer coats. This may seem unremarkable (they don't change colour after all) but it's really a crisis waiting to happen. Along with their fur, they lose their ID marks too.
Each mongoose in my study population has a unique ID mark so I can easily recognise who is doing what. Using a long-handled paint-brush, I crawl around the group while they're lounging at their refuge, surreptitiously dabbing a little blob of blonde hair dye on each animal's fur. Although the dye (which gives a golden colour) lasts only a couple of weeks, the bleached patch remains for around 6 months until the fur is shed.

Bugbears, last week, when they still had ID marks. Look closely to identify Cinnamon (right rib), Baloo (right shoulder) and Koda (upper tail).

Because it's been raining almost continuously for the last three days, I've been working at home. There's no point visiting the mongooses because they stay in bed when it's raining (or very hot, or very cold: the world's most civilised study animals). But today, with the sun shining brightly and everything sparkling and green, I set out enthusiastically. No go: every drainage channel, every tiny creek, is now a raging torrent of swirling, muddy water. Fortunately, I was still able to reach part of Bugbear's range (after some nail-biting creek-crossings), but was appalled to find that almost every animal had lost its mark! Sitting shivering in a leaky termite mound, what else has a mongoose got to do but grow fur?

Fortunately, I was able to figure out who was who from their various idiosyncrasies (Baloo has a missing toe, Black a scar on his neck, Iorek a bald patch under her chin from an old abscess, etc.) and I slopped the dye around accordingly. But I'm now freaking out about what's happening at the other three groups. It'll be at least a couple of days before the water recedes enough for me to reach them.
Yes, I know I could avoid all this bi-annual anxiety by marking the mongooses permanently, using freeze branding (the fur on their scar-tissue grows back white). However, I feel that burning sores into my mongooses is more invasive than I wish to be.

I guess I just cross my fingers and hope.

Two of the creeks I chose not to drive through today.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Wet and froggy

It's raining heavily today and my house is full of frogs.

I'm typing to the accompaniment of numerous 'pings' - as drips fall into saucepans - and I'm hedged in on all sides by books rescued from the flood that's seeping under my front door. The frogs, however, are having a great time. I've counted four species so far.

Apart from general wetness, I'm feeling bad because last night's storm flooded my tadpole dish, washing away half the tadpoles. Secretly, I'm also a little relieved. You see, about 8 weeks ago, while walking the dogs, I came across a patch of muddy ooze filled with 1000s of squirming tadpoles. The rains have been poor this year with several weeks elapsing between each rain storm. This is bad news for the local frogs who depend on temporary pools to breed. All summer I've been stumbling across almost dried-up puddles filled with writhing tadpoles, which I surreptitiously transfer to deeper pools. It's all been useless, of course: when next I pass, there's no trace of water anywhere. The ants are making a killing.
The Tadpoles that Lived.

Anyway, on this occasion, I scooped a few hundred into my water bottle and - unable to find an alternative - stuck them in my birdbath. This act of altruism (bunny-hugging?? frog conservation??) has been costly. The little blighters nibble their way through two lettuces a week, require twice daily water changes and - once they find their feet, so to speak - must be caught and transferred to a dish embedded in the garden. I'm getting a bit sick of it. I don't even know what species they are (at least two); fingernail-sized frogs are mighty difficult to identify.

More easily dealt with are those that are currently hopping around my feet.

The plain grass frog (Ptychadena anchietae)
is less than 2 inches long but is the most amazing jumper I've ever seen. They cross the room in one bound, nonchalantly leaping high over my head. The pets, who normally ignore frogs, can't resist giving chase, so these little guys go flying all over the house, ricocheting off the walls and roof before ultimately disappearing out a window. The sharp-nosed grass frog (Ptychadena oxyrhynchus) – which is what I think some of my tadpoles are growing into – is listed in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest amphibian leap: in 1977  'Santjie', a resident of Kwa-Zulu Natal, hopped 10.3 metres.

Tropical plantanas (Xenopus muelleri)
are supposed to live permanently in water. They're certainly built for it, with eyes perched on top of their heads and huge webbed hind feet that leave them virtually unable to hop. Covered in poisonous slime, they squirm across my floor and die within 12 hours if I don't put them outside. I haven't seen them in previous years; I assume the poor rains have left them besieged at the river and they're now out searching for newly filled pans. My house must lie on an ancient, plantana migration route because they're all utterly determined to traverse my lounge room.

Red toad (Schismaderma carens).
This large toad is a permanent resident. Although he eagerly gulps mealworms each evening, our relationship has deteriorated considerably since 'Take your toad to work day'. Of all the idiot places he's chosen to snooze the day away (and he's picked some doozies: in the toe of my boot, in the cats' food bowl, inside the teapot), his biggest mistake has been my backpack. Nestled away inside, he inadvertently spent the morning with me in the field and then accompanied me on my weekly shopping trip to town. I only discovered him when retrieving my wallet at the supermarket checkout; much to the cashier's consternation.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

How to find a mongoose

Regardless of how much you love your job, there's always some aspect of the work that's tiresome, frustrating or just plain disheartening.

For me, it's finding the mongooses.

Take today: while everyone else was happily munching hot-cross buns or overindulging on chocolate, I was out there struggling through thorn-thickets, hour after hour, totally failing to find my mongooses.

I've got nothing against radio-collaring study animals, but dwarf mongooses are – well – dwarf. The small collars they need have a limited battery life, so the mongooses need to be recaptured every few months. As a biologist working with wild animals, I believe that if it's possible to obtain your data non-invasively, you should, even if it means you're sometimes inconvenienced.
Just at the moment, I repeat this mantra to myself frequently. You see dwarf mongoose groups have territories of 30-40 hectares, and while it's fairly straight forward to find them eight months of the year, in the summer wet season, when the bush transforms into a lush, tangled jungle, the 'inconvenience' sets in.

So how do you find a 3-inch-high mongoose in 40 hectares of bush?
You get up early!
The mongooses sleep in the ventilation shafts of disused termite mounds, and each group has about 30 of these sleeping mounds in its territory. In the cooler winter months, the mongooses sleep late and lounge around their refuge for hours, soaking up the sun, romping in play and grooming one another. To find them, I simply have to check each of their refuges first thing in the morning.

Latrine left by Bugbears at their overnight refuge.

Even if the group has already set out foraging, I still know where to start searching because they considerately leave behind a latrine at their sleeping place. They are also very keen on scent-marking, so whenever the group passes a scent-marking site (and they have about 40 of these scattered through their territory), they'll smear pongy anal secretions on the logs and rocks, and leave a dropping or two. By checking these 'message posts' (all plotted on my GPS), I can track where the group has gone.

Keni contributing to Bugbear's latrine.

But in summer, everything goes pear-shaped. Firstly, the mongooses get up very EARLY. The moment the sun edges over the horizon, they come tumbling out of their mound, climbing over one another in a flurry to latrine, and hurrying off to forage. With daily temperatures reaching the high 30s or low 40s (Celsius), they can't afford to linger - by 9am they'll have to forgo foraging to lie about in the shade. So although I get up at 4 am, I'm usually not able to find them at their refuge. And the difficulties don't stop there. In summer the dung beetles are active. These poxy, little varmints come buzzing in the moment a mongoose defecates. They tussle over the droppings, gathering them up and rolling them away into the undergrowth. Within 10 minutes there is no trace of the latrine.

So I'm left tramping back and forth through the mongooses' overgrown territory, disconsolately sniffing at rocks and feeling thoroughly inadequate!

A dung beetle doing its dastardly deed.

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