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!