Friday, December 5, 2014

Canids of the Mara

While African savanna ecosystems are generally known for their large cats, there are a number of canids to be found here as well. Contrary to popular belief, hyenas are not among them; hyenas are in fact more closely related to cats than they are to dogs. Today we temporarily depart from the world of hyenas, however, and instead explore some of the canids to be found in the Mara.

Jackals are the most common of the canids running around the Mara.  These small social dogs live in pairs that breed, den, and raise offspring together. The jackals are ubiquitously omnivorous, feeding on insects, fruits, and small-to-medium sized vertebrates. Despite the common misconception that jackals are purely scavengers, they have been found to hunt the majority of their own food. The two types of jackals most often seen in the Mara are the black-backed and the side-striped jackals.

Juvenile black-baked jackals

Black-backed jackal: The black-backed jackal is the more social and more aggressive of the two frequently seen Mara jackals. They live in family groups of breeding pairs with dependent offspring, sometimes with young adult and subadult ‘helpers.’ They are adept cooperative hunters that frequently kill small and medium sized mammals. Black-backed jackals have earned their reputation for boldness by frequently stealing food from much larger carnivores like lions and hyenas, as well as through their aggressive defense of their dens. I personally have seen jackals bite hyenas on multiple occasions! Their comfort around large carnivores makes them particularly well specialized for open savanna ecosystems, which is their primary habitat.

A family of black-backed jackals
Two black-backed jackals in a scuffle over a scrap
A stare-down between Kyoto and a black-backed jackal

Side-striped jackal: The side-striped jackal is more solitary and more nocturnal than the black-backed jackal. While they too live in family groups, they usually forage alone and at night. As such, they are a significantly rarer sight here in the Mara. They are more omnivorous than the black-backed jackals and are found in more diverse habitat covering more of Africa. Although the side-striped jackal is larger than its black-backed relative, the black-backed jackal is dominant to the side-striped jackal and usually wins during disputes over food.  Because of their nocturnal habits, I have seen very few side-striped jackals during my time here. Recently, we saw both side-striped and black-backed jackals at a Talek West carcass. Unsurprisingly, the side-striped jackal kept a healthy distance between it and the two black-backed jackals, who eventually chased the larger canid away.

Bat-eared fox: The third commonly seen canid in the Mara is the bat-eared fox. These foxes are characterized by their large ears, which are used for locating invertebrates, their primary food source. Like the jackals, they live in family groups consisting of a bonded pair and their recent offspring. These foxes are found mostly in arid savanna ecosystems and specialize in eating harvester termites, a lifestyle to which they are extremely well adapted! In addition to their large, sensitive ears, they also have thick fur to ward off biting insects and sharp claws to ease excavation of termite mounds. Their 46 to 50 sharp teeth allow them to quickly chew potentially harmful insects, and their uniquely muscled jaws allow their mandible to close five times per second! While these dietary adaptations are truly impressive, the bat-eared fox’s crowning achievement is its adorable little face.

A family of bat-eared foxes
A bate-eared fox peaks out of it's den hole
While the above-mentioned canids are the most commonly found in the Mara, there is another dog that can be found in the park: the domestic dog. Increasingly, we are seeing individuals and groups of dogs foraging inside the parks boundaries. When taken out of the context of human development and placed into a habitat full of wild animals, these dogs quickly appear a great deal less domesticated.


adw said...

Great photos!

I don't like seeing the dogs inside the park though.

dee said...

Good post, thanks. Any chance painted dogs might reapper in the Mara?

Anonymous said...

P.S. It's time for a Cyberman update, good or bad we NEED the news!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science