Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A festivity of pups

One.... two, three....
Crouched in the dappled shade of a marula tree, I was counting pups.
Not pups of the canine persuasion; mongoose pups.
Now this was no easy feat because they were passing me at speed, curled into walnut-sized balls within the mouths of their caregivers.

Four... five...
Number five was having a rough ride, dragged along enthusiastically by nine-month-old Echo. Despite pointing his nose skyward and waddling on tiptoes, he simply wasn’t tall enough to lift his cargo clear of snags.
Oh, wait a minute, there’s one being carried back again...
Back to five...

Koppiekats group was shifting its week-old pups to a new termite mound and it was my one chance to figure out how many there were.
Frenzied excitement gripped the group as mongooses dashed back and forth; some carrying pups, some not. Calling anxiously to one another, and with agitation-fluffed fur, some individuals raced ahead to check the safety of the new mound while others ran helter-skelter back to huddle the last nest-bound pups. Meanwhile the pup-carriers hurried on past, self-importantly announcing their passage with uninterrupted, high-pitched peeps (‘clear the way, pup coming through’). And the little ones - although tiny, black-fuzzed and blind - gave ear-piercing squawks whenever they were unceremoniously dumped beneath tussock or log.

Six... seven...

No wonder the group was so excited.
Four is the normal size of a dwarf mongoose litter.
So how did Koppiekats end up with eight?

Koppiekats’ most recent progeny, venturing out at four weeks old. Pups stay snugged away inside a termite mound for their first three weeks of life, coddled and guarded by babysitters. With so many little ones, Koppiekats felt the responsibility keenly, usually leaving behind two or three minders.

As you probably know, dwarf mongooses - like their celebrated cousins the meerkats – are the living embodiment of the Musketeers’ motto. Dedicated to the ‘all-for-one and one-for-all’ maxim, group members team up to harry snakes, evict trespassers and warn one another of incoming raptors. With heroic selflessness, they forfeit their own romantic aspirations to devotedly care for the offspring of their group’s sovereigns. It’s all heart-warmingly altruistic.
In theory.
In reality, the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting are not quite so chaste. These heirs apparent (sisters and grown daughters of the Queen) are not above indulging in a little hanky-panky. And when the inevitable happens, they try to hush it up by smuggling the consequences into the royal nursery.

To help perpetuate the hoax, they give birth on the same day as the monarch. I don’t know how they manage this because the courtiers normally mate a day or two after the Queen. But when royalty decrees, loyal subjects follow, ready or not. It looks as if the illegitimate pups are simply borne a little premature (they’re smaller and have shorter fur). Even courtiers who are only ‘a bit pregnant’ honour the auspicious day, aborting their litters and discreetly nibbling up the tiny pink foetuses.

When spring is in the air, the ladies of the court don’t seem to be able to say ‘No’, and the sovereign is rarely alone when she delivers the first litter of the summer. This is Cricket, an errant Princess in Bugbears, awaiting the big day.

So what’s the fate of these illegitimate ankle-biters?
Well that’s in the paws of the Queen.
Normally they’re doomed.
Her Majesty swiftly transforms them into a restorative post-partum snack and the bereaved mums then act as wet-nurses for the rightful heirs. Fortunately (from my perspective) dwarf mongooses don’t believe in airing their dirty laundry in public so all I see of the nefarious deed is a bulging tummy and blood-smeared chin. Not so meerkats, who enact a horrifying spectacle in which the whole group tussles over the gory remains.

However, occasionally, if food is plentiful, the Queen grants a stay of execution. A genetic study of Serengeti’s dwarf mongooses found that 18% of pups reared by the group are the progeny of lesser females. Although the rulers of my other study groups were merciless this year, Pleiades, the sovereign of Koppiekats, opted for clemency. So some of the pups that just passed me are actually Pleiades’ nieces, nephews or grandkids.

The brood at six weeks. Notice the size difference between the legitimate pups (on the left) and the little interloper on the right. Yes, there is a question mark over his head: I don’t know who his mum is (because three courtiers - Spark, Helium and Mercury – were in the family way).

But even if they escape the death sentence at birth, illegitimate pups aren’t out of the woods. They face a second test. And it is this that has made me apprehensive every time I've visited Koppiekats.

You see at one month old, mongoose pups begin tagging along on the group’s daily foraging jaunts. Chivvied, cajoled and carried, the little ones are tended constantly. Carefully lodged under a log or boulder, the pups are then presented with half-chewed creepy-crawlies by doting group members.
But when the pups hit five weeks old, this mollycoddling stops. Although everyone still feeds them (and will do so for another five weeks), the youngsters are expected to look out for themselves. If the group runs, so must they. It doesn’t matter how far, or how fast; they must keep up. So if any pup is below par (debilitated from want of food, illness or underdevelopment), they’re simply left behind.

Although I loathe this phase of mongoose-rearing, it serves the mongooses well, ensuring that they channel their efforts only into the healthiest pups.
And I’m very relieved to report that all but one of the little Koppiekats pups managed to pass this trial. Aided and abetted by a timely glut of beetle lava, seven of the roly-poly little creatures live to tell the tale. In fact they’re doing so well, they spend most of their time playing rather than trying to cadge food from their betters.

Shell games.

Leaf games.

Bite-brother games.

If you were wondering, no-one left these pups out in the rain. The rusty patches on their fur are from daubs of ‘Camomile’ blonde hair dye (so I can tell who’s who).

Born on 31 Oct, the Koppiekat pups remain unnamed. I’m trying to come up with Halloween-appropriate monikers, but they also need to be associated with minerals (as in Twenty Questions). Darkness, maybe? Sulphur? Or Silver (for the bullets needed to pot vampires)? Any suggestions gratefully received!

I almost forgot.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Fraternizing with the locals


The deep, resonant calls - each ascending smoothly in pitch - were spine-tinglingly loud.
I dashed outside into the cool, river-scented darkness. The night reverberated with the machinery-clatter of toads, cicadas and crickets, yet the eerie, other-worldly whoops were loud enough to thrum within my chest.

Somewhere, down below me in the riverbed, a spotted hyena was calling to his/her clan.

Now even if you’ve never been to Africa (and if you’re into wildlife, WHY NOT?); even if you’ve never seen a hyena in the fur, you’ll recognise these calls. Beyond any other sight or sound, the hyena’s whoops epitomize the African night (and feature in virtually every wildlife documentary ever made on this continent).
And of all the wild places in the world, Africa - at night - is probably the scariest. It's also our ancestral home. For millions of years our forebears stared out into the dark, shivering at the sound of the hyena’s call. It’s no surprise then, that the eerie whoops stir a deep, atavistic trepidation. Grinning insanely into the dark, I stood revelling in the trills of fear that fluttered up and down my spine.

[You can listen to a spotted hyena whooping here (button no 2)].

Hyena-kind evolved from mongooses and civets about 10 million years ago. The spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) has haunted the African savanna for as long as humankind's existed. It can also digest teeth (I just thought you’d like to know that).

Now I don’t want you to start thinking that hyenas whoop simply for our titillation. This long-distance call (audible up to 5 km/3 miles) is the SMS of the hyena-world. Roaming clan-members use it to keep in touch and call for assistance when uninvited visitors rock up for dinner.

Whoop-studying researchers - plotting the calls of different hyenas on spectrograms - found that each hyena has its own distinctive whoop; something I guess the hyenas already knew.
Although an individual’s voice gets deeper as it ages, the unique pattern of its whoops remain consistent year after year; so hyenas can recognise one another from whoop alone.

When researchers played back recordings of cubs (who start whooping at 3-4 weeks), the whooper’s mum (but not other mothers) rushed to the speaker (oh, that is unless Mum was dining, in which case she just glowered in the right direction – hey, you gotta get your priorities right). Close family members also responded, and the amount of time they spent eyeing the speaker was directly proportional to how closely related they were to the little whooper. In fact, hyenas seem to use whoops to flaunt their identity during brawls (and no one scraps as well as spotted hyenas).

Now I have to admit I wasn’t thinking about any of this as I stood at the bottom of my garden the other night. I was peering into the darkness, straining to pinpoint the exact location of the caller.
Umm, exactly which side of the river was the creature prowling?
Then my heart-stopped.
Directly behind me (and I’m talking one or two metres/yards) an answering call rose up. Fear clutched my chest as the eerie, resonant wail swelled upwards. But after a few moments I realised that the call was not a hyena’s. Although almost as loud, and with the same deep, tonal qualities, it continued to rise, and then undulate, in pitch. It was probably the most desolate sound I’ve ever heard. Still barely able to breathe, I crept toward the uncanny, penetrating wail.
What could make such a call?
And there it was; lying on my door mat.
My husky, Wizard.

‘You won’t believe the riffraff you meet around here these days’.
Now in truth, I couldn’t have been more shocked if I’d stumbled upon the cat reciting Shakespeare. This was like no dog’s howl I’d ever heard. It was a blood-curdling keening, evocative of wildness, primal instinct and vast empty lands. It was NOT something that should be emanating from a household pet! In the seven years that Wizard has companionably shared the humdrum domesticity of my life, I’ve never heard him utter such a sound.

Wizard, pining for the tundra?

I guess the whole incident made me realise that, just as our own hearts and minds were honed by millions of years on the African savanna, so too our domestic animals carry within them the legacy of their ancestors’ lives. It’s so easy to overlook our pets, to somehow believe they’re creations of our own (like TV or motor cars or computers). But our companion animals are profoundly wild beings, gifted to us with just the flimsiest wrappings of domesticity.
And what an utterly amazing privilege it is to share so intimately in the life of a wholly different species.

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