Batty babies at Christmas

By Keafon Jumbam

Breeding season is once again upon us. In the past year, the batty team has enthusiastically followed and documented the life journey of a group of batties, including a set of adorable pups. We watched with amazement how quickly the pups grew into adulthood, observed their distinct personalities and witnessed their squabbles, injuries and recovery. Most nights they would forage as a group, calling out to one another when a member accidentally strayed too far from the team. Their teamwork also paid off on windy and stormy nights as they huddled tightly together to fence off the cold.

sibling huddle
Puppy huddle – Bentley, Baine and Barbie staving off the cold


As they matured into adulthood and became more independent, they started establishing new territories and looking for partners. Like anxious parents we followed them closely, wondering who had succeeded in hitching a date and who hadn’t. We couldn’t exactly offer advice on whom to date, but I wish we could, because some of their partners could have given any sensible parent a heart attack! Remember Cat? She sure didn’t waste time in mourning her dead hubby; Mr Right was easily replaced by Mr Right Next Door. And yes, amidst all the courting and foraging, sadly, we lost several batties along the way due to forces of nature: disease, predation and dispersal.

But here we are again, coming full circle to another breeding season; this time with lots of hope in sight. Imagine the heightened spirit of anticipation with which we have been looking forward to this breeding season, especially after the recent rabies outbreak. So we kicked off the season by relentlessly fishing out possible dens and setting up camera traps to monitor activity within them. We were elated one night when our team stumbled upon two dens, both containing pups. One den is occupied by a lovely, wild couple and we are right now in the process of habituating them. Cylon, one of our newly habituated foxes, is the proud papa at the second den. And that’s not all; Baine has joined the ranks of fatherhood too.

pup at the den

It is truly refreshing to watch these new dads take to their paternal role very seriously, as is expected of batties. They sit protectively by the den entrance, day and night, occasionally disappearing into the den to attend to their brood. On a recent 2 hour follow session, I observed Cylon hastily forage by his den for less than 30 minutes before quickly disappearing into the den for the rest of the session. I feel privileged to have a front row seat to this parental care unfolding by the den. It offers me an opportunity to study first-hand the differences in parental roles of batties, where fathers often do most of the parental duties while mothers focus on little other than nursing.

This being my last SAYAS blog and field season before my return into the ‘real’ world, I feel honoured to have been given this opportunity to share my PhD journey with you. What a thrilling journey it has been – from the shocking discovery of a Kalahari ‘Cambridge’ community, to the fierce wildlife encounters and daily sandy marathon races with foxes under the moonlight. It has been worth the steep learning curve and fitness regime by default :-). I’ve learned that life is a blend of positives and negatives, much like the batties we lost along the way and the new ones we are currently gaining. Regardless of the challenges I face along the way, I remain focused on the positive end goal. By this time next year, I will be blazing hot in a red graduation gown. If I can achieve it, so can you!

And just to leave you with some final, happy puppy footage…

Pipetting for dummies

By Keafon Jumbam

PracticingI’m back in the lab once again to hone my skills on faecal hormonal assays. The unsuccessful ending to my first lab visit didn’t deter me from trying again. If anything, the lessons I gathered from that experience made me more determined to succeed in my analyses this time around. Besides, I’m surrounded by several lab experts who are always happy to offer support and guidance; starting with this – relax and develop a pipetting rhythm that works for you.

And on that note, I plunged into the fundamentals of hormonal assays.

Back to basics

The prerequisite for me to obtaining a good assay was to master the steps and types of reagents needed as well as brushing up on my pipetting techniques. So I set aside a couple of days for these tasks but the monotony of the mundane exercise – and in particular, pipetting – started to get to me by day two. I needed to persist through it for two main reasons: To get a ‘feel’ of the different assay liquids and subsequently handle them better and secondly, to develop that all too important pipetting rhythm!

Finally tackling the real deal – hormonal assay

By day three, I had a firm grasp of the basics and was confident in my abilities to pull off a good assay. The assay involves preparing a standard curve from a serial dilution of different volumes of liquids and reagents, which are then pipetted into a “plate” of 96 tiny wells. The wells are closely packed and certainly require your utmost concentration during pipetting. In fact, it is not uncommon to completely ignore visitors when busy with a plate; unless of course it’s an emergency.


Three’s a charm

You would think that with all those days of practise I’ve had, surely I would nail the first assay but it turned out to be a disaster – and the second one too – both plates had HUGE outliers spanning the length of the standard curves. Was I already re-establishing my previous pattern of disappointment? Self-doubt was slowly setting in…But I thought to approach this non-academically and perhaps a bit more like a sportswoman. This is a physical feat, and after all, expert runners benefit from having somebody critiquing their technique.

The moment of truth... my hard work about to be interpreted...
The moment of truth… my hard work about to be interpreted…

So I solicited the help of an expert to invigilate my every step and it paid off – she quickly identified the mistake – yes, it was my pipetting technique! Another bout of training later and I was geared up for a third assay plate. I could hardly contain my excitement when it came out a success! The standard curve was on point as were the rest of my results. Practise does make perfect. I know it’s too soon to claim total victory but as I head back to the field to collect more faecal samples, I’m more confident in my abilities to analyse them in the nearest future. Watch this space…

A thing of beauty -- not a single outlier on my standard curve!
A thing of beauty — not a single outlier on my standard curve!