A Cape ground squirrel mobbing a Cape cobra
The project was set up in May 2012 and is a collaboration between the University of Zurich and Cambridge University. It is intended that this will be a long-term study looking at aspects such as sociality, reproduction, communication and cognition.
The Cape ground squirrel (Xerus inauris)
Cape ground squirrels are medium sized (at maturity 500-700g) rodents that inhabit arid areas of Southern Africa. This species is non-hibernating, semi-fossorial and gregarious. They are highly social, although not cooperative in nature, and can live in groups of up to 36 individuals (which is the largest group we have seen at the site). Within the groups there is a structured hierarchy amongst all group members and within females.
Ground squirrels can be found throughout Southern Africa, in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. In the Kalahari, they prefer habitats with harder substrates to make their burrows, avoiding areas of soft sand.
This species has many adaptations to desert living. The most evident being their long bushy tail. Not only is it used to distract predators, but is also used as a parasol to shade individuals when they are foraging under the hot Kalahari sun.
It has been suggested that females breed all year around, however, at the project, there is a notable increase in births coinciding with the rainy season between November and March/April. Females have between 2-3 litters per year and litter size can vary between 1-6 pups. Pups are born underground after a gestation period of around 50 days and emerge from the burrow 4 weeks after birth.
They are generalist omnivores feeding on a variety of seeds and masts as well as some invertebrates. This species caches food for later use. Ground squirrels scatter-hoard food around a central sleeping burrow.
All field work is undertaken at the Kuruman River Reserve, the site of the Kalahari Meerkat Project.
Current research themes
Cache protection and decision-making
This project is examining the various mechanisms this species uses to protect food caches from competitors.
The dominance hierarchy in this species is rather dynamic and so this theme is looking at quantifying dominance and examining temporal patterns.
Costs of social living
Using hormonal and behavioural data to determine the costs of social living such as how dominance level can affect oxidative stress
Samson, J. & Manser, M. 2016. Use of the sun as a heading indicator when caching and recovering in a wild rodent. Scientific Reports, DOI: 10.1038/srep32570
Samson, J. & Manser,M. 2016. Are Cape ground squirrels (Xerus inauris) sensitive to variation in the payoffs from their caches?Ethology, DOI: 10.1111/eth.12504
Samson, J. & Manser, M. 2015. Caching in the presence of conspecifics: Are Cape ground squirrels sensitive to audience attentiveness? Animal Cognition, DOI 10.1007/s10071-015-0910-0
Will start a post-doc looking at differential costs of social living
Rebecca graduated from Yale University with a B.S. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in 2016. Her past research focused on species distribution modelling in dragonflies. Her field experience includes working on tick-borne diseases, fungal endophytes, and vegetative characteristics, and she is enjoying the switch over to mammals.
Laura graduated with a B.S. in Marine Biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Previous field experience includes working with California’s native predatory species, small mammal trapping, and collecting baseline ecological data as a field technician. She will continue in the field of ecology either through field research or post-graduate study.
Iris graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a B.A. in Environmental Biology. Her past research experience includes collecting forest census data at the Tyson Research Center for the Smithsonian ForestGeo Network, surveying invasive gastropods in Kruger National Park, and analysing large environmental data sets to explore how environmental conditions play a role in sexual dimorphism in passerines. She is enjoying learning about the field of behavioural ecology, and hopes to attend graduate school in the future.
We currently have no openings
The Cape ground squirrel project offers positions for research volunteers. During their time at the project volunteers learn a range of valuable skills and field techniques including observational data collection, research design, and some data handling and analysis. They also have the opportunity to carry out a supervised project of their own.
On average the project employs 2 - 3 volunteers per year, each of which spend twelve months in South Africa monitoring and collecting detailed data on our study populations.
Accommodation for volunteers is provided, and volunteers are paid a monthly allowance to cover their food and a contribution to their travel costs (at the end of their stay). Since it takes several weeks to acquire the necessary field skills, we only take volunteers who are prepared to stay at least 12 months.
Volunteers should be prepared to work hard! The typical day of a squirrel volunteer is split into a morning observation session starting at sunrise and continuing for about 4 hours into the heat of the day, and an afternoon session lasting of 2-3 hrs and ending at sunset. Volunteers process their data at the end of each session, and are encouraged to become involved in additional duties. Initial training will be provided, and volunteers usually work alone or in small groups. You may also work with visitors to the project.
In general, volunteers will have a degree in Biology, Zoology, Conservation biology, Psychology, or a related subject. Volunteers must be physically fit and able to commit to 12 months of field work in demanding conditions in the southern Kalahari. Volunteers must have a driving license.