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Written by: Andrea Webster, Centre for Wildlife Management, University of Pretoria

Despite all the years of biological, ecological, and behavioural research, our knowledge and understanding of small to medium sized carnivores and the dynamic interactions between them is still limited. These little predators – mongooses, caracal, honey badgers and the like – are important members of terrestrial ecosystems contributing to seed dispersal, disease ecology and the regulation of rodent and insect populations. The nocturnal habits of several of these species, makes them a challenge to study.

A close-up inspection of the camera by a yellow mongoose
A close-up inspection of the camera by a yellow mongoose

Many aspects of our lives have been influenced by technology, and the sciences are no different. Fitting animals with satellite tracking collars or putting up camera traps allows us to monitor animals and their movements without our physical presence interfering with their daily routines. Like most things technological, camera trapping can be a tricky business if things don’t go according to plan. There’s a fine line between positioning one’s traps to ensure they record the data you are looking for and making sure they are safe from wandering warthogs looking for a scratching post, or curious baboons.

When we began our three-and-a-half month survey of mesocarnivores on Telperion Nature Reserve, a privately owned and managed property in Mpumalanga, in April 2015, we had little idea of the diverse range of mesocarnivores we would find. The undulating grasslands of the 7,350 ha reserve are interspersed with rocky kopjes and spectacular red sandstone cliffs along the Wilge River, which flows through the reserve for about 20km. Smaller tributaries run through the reserve, creating wetlands and reed beds that provide nesting sites for water birds and a much-needed resource to the many antelope and mammal species on the property in the dry season.

Competition is a common phenomenon in natural systems and influences patterns of species distribution and diversity in an area. Because organisms don’t exist in isolation, animals must adopt a survival strategy or combination of strategies, that allows them to obtain the key elements of survival – food, water, and shelter – while simultaneously avoiding or limiting interactions with competitors and larger predators that may make a meal of them. Using different resources, time or space are some of the ways that animals survive in a competitive environment.

The obvious differences between the open stretches of grassland and the dense, tangled vegetation hemmed in by rocky ledges near the river, together with the differences in resource availability in each vegetation type, offered a unique opportunity to investigate species composition on the property and gain insight into the survival strategies used by different mesocarnivore species occupying each vegetation type.

In our three and a half months of camera trapping, we identified 14 species of mesocarnivores – black backed jackal, meerkat, slender, yellow and water mongooses, rusty-spotted genet, caracal, serval, striped pole cat, black-footed cat, honey badger, aardwolf, spotted necked otter and Cape clawless otter.

A family of meerkats move along a game path to a favourite foraging patch in the grassland.
A family of meerkats move along a game path to a favourite foraging patch in the grassland
Otters taking a rest after an early morning swim
Otters take a rest after an early morning swim

Two large predator species, leopard and brown hyena were also detected on the property, making for a wonderfully diverse group of different creatures in such a small area. Aardvark, porcupine, bush pig and cane rat were some of the other species we identified during the study. Contrary to our predictions, many of the species detected utilised grassland to a greater degree than the concentrated resource riparian areas.

Aardvark looking for termites
An aardvark looks for termites
A leopard makes its way up to higher ground
A leopard makes its way up to higher ground
A brown hyena pauses before crossing the river
A brown hyena pauses before crossing the river

Our findings showed that despite having similar diets and being active at more or less the same times of day, slender mongoose and yellow mongoose avoid each other by using different attributes within the same vegetation type. While yellow mongooses used only grassland areas, slender mongoose divided their time between the riparian areas and the rocky outcrops of the kopjes to forage for food, and thus avoided competition with each other. Black-backed jackal were the species most often detected during the study and were active throughout most of the day and night, taking time to rest during the heat of the day. They were seldom observed near the river, appearing to favour the use of the riparian area as a corridor. Rusty-spotted genets were active throughout the night and favoured areas around the river the most. When venturing into grassland areas they kept to the rocky outcrops or wooded areas that provided them with some means of escape should they encounter anything that may consider them a meal. These species used both time and space to limit interactions and, therefore, competition for resources.

A black-backed jackal crossing a shallow tributary
A black-backed jackal crosses a shallow tributary
Large-spotted genet
A rusty-spotted genet

Genet, water mongoose, serval, and jackal were active at lower temperatures of around 5ºC, while members of the mongoose family were active at higher temperatures (around 22ºC) during the heat of the day. Jackals, however, were active over the widest range of temperatures from -10ºC to 40ºC. The majority of nocturnal species detected were most active during the phases of new moon and waxing crescent.

Misty morning serval activity
Misty morning serval activity

Our study has contributed new details and insights towards understanding the diverse, abundant, and adaptable creatures that are mesocarnivores. Now we know where and when to find them, we can examine further aspects of their behaviour, ecology, interactions with other species, and their role in a changing natural environment.

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