Thursday, June 30, 2011

What it's all about...

I guess I have not really explained why I am here in South Africa. I am here conducting my masters research. Broadly I am interested in behavioural ecology. That is the study of animal behaviour within an evolutionary context. Instead of looking at an individual’s behaviour I am interested in a population or a species and also the interactions between species in an ecosystem.
My project is looking at anti-predator behaviours in the Cape ground squirrel. How animals avoid predation is an important aspect to the whole idea of survival of the fittest. An individual must survive long enough to get their genes into the next generation and one of the big impediments to survival for many animals is predation.
There are two main focuses to my research. First I want to look at predator discrimination. The first step to avoiding being eaten is recognition. There are usually many things in an ecosystem that could be potentially harmful though not all predators are created equal. I am interested in investigating at what level animals discriminate and what sorts of behaviours follow this discrimination.
My second focus is cooperation. Evolution favours the selfish- it is a dog eat dog world. What I mean is that individuals are interested in surviving and reproducing above all else. If you look at the natural world however you see cooperation everywhere from eusocial insects, to group living ground squirrels, and even in the cells of your own body. So obviously cooperation can be beneficial to the individual or it would not be so prevalent. One of the hypothesized benefits for cooperating in some animals is anti-predation benefits. I am interested in how animals cooperate to avoid predation.
I chose Cape ground squirrels for my study animal for several reasons. First, previous research done by my supervisor and her lab has made my life easier by already studying the social system and breeding system in the Cape ground squirrel. So I know from her research that Capes live in social groups: females live in small groups of related individuals that all share a burrow cluster: and males also live in separate but also amicable groups of unrelated individuals moving around several female groups. Their social system makes them an ideal animal to study cooperative anti-predator behaviours. My supervisor has seen this species band together and harass (called mobbing) some terrestrial predators which is the observation that sparked my research.
Another reason I chose Capes is because they are a good species to look at predator discrimination. Being a ground squirrel in Southern Africa means they have many predators. I will be focusing on snake predators in which there are many different types with different hunting strategies and venoms making it a great system to study fine scale discrimination.
So that is the gist. Hopefully this gives you guys a bit of a background to my project and why I am all the way over here for the next six months without boring you to death!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Glorious field work

It has been quite a while since I have been able to post. After visiting Pilanesburg we left the busy city of Pretoria and I felt a weight being lifted. We finally made it out to our field site at SA Lombard. The reserve is small- 3500 ha. It does not have any of the big five and I prefer it that way. Elephants and lions are fun to visit but when it comes to logistics it is so much easier to not have them to worry about. The park is not open to the public and is used as an ungulate breeding ground. There are Black Wildebeest, impala, Springbok, Orynx, Zebra, Blesbok, warthog, and Black-backed jackal to name some of the common sights on the park. It is more beautiful here than I expected and the field house is more comfortable than I could have imagined.

We set the field house up and then took off to Namibia. My supervisor previously worked in a park in Namibia and she had stored a majority of the field gear there. So we took a road trip up through Namibia to a tiny town called Maltahoe. Every town in Namibia is a tiny town (except the capital city). Namibia feels very empty with enormous skies and dramatic landscapes. It is a very beautiful country. I was sad to cross back into South Africa again but relieved to get back to the field house that already feels like home.

Since returning we have fallen into a nice routine. We wake up at sunrise to set traps our boots crunching on frost covered grass. As we walk across the plain we are greeted with amazing sunrises and the grunts of wildebeest giving us the hairy eye. We work our squirrels and release them back to the feld with PIT tags and dye marks so we can follow their movements from far away. So far we have captured and released around 50 individuals. Starting in July we hope to start our experiments. The background data we are capturing from each individual is essential before we do so. It feels so nice to finally be doing what I have set out to do.

In the evening we go down to the pan which is filled with water and watch the sunset and look at the water birds that roost around the temporary lake. Or we go for a run down the roads listening to the jackals calling and watching the springboks bound across the road ahead of us.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Pilanesberg National Park


Blue wildebeest

Common warthog

White rhino

We went to a nature reserve today to look at some animals that will not be on our field site. This is a mixed blessing since these animals are very beautiful but can also be dangerous so it is nice to visit them but it is also nice not to have to worry about them while we are working!

Also we are FINALLY leaving for the field tomorow. Bloemhof here we come! One week in the city is about enough for me.