As a Research Assistant, one of my daily responsibilities while out on an observation session is to record carnivore data. This means that whenever we find a carnivore in the territories that we study, we document where and when we saw that specific species. This data allows us to see what other carnivores the spotted hyena is living around and to record any interactions between them. I’ve been here four months now and the carnivores I’ve seen thus far are servals, lions, cheetahs, leopards, banded mongooses, dwarf mongooses, white-tailed mongooses and side-striped jackals. The most common carnivore spotted in Talek however, is undeniably the black-backed jackal.
The black-backed jackal is a sleek, small canine who displays a distinct dark back coat, pointed ears, and a bushy tail. I think they closely resembles fox species. What has been striking in the behavior of the black-baked jackal is the observable, strict monogamous bond between pairs and their intense territorial defense strategies. We often find ourselves in what we think are black-backed jackal territories and spot a female, knowing too well that the male is most likely nearby. We often document black-backed jackals in adult pairs, but have had numerous observations of pups as well. A female will have litters of 3-4 and interestingly, the assistance of helpers, or older offspring, has been found to have a direct influence on pup survival. Not only do helpers contribute their regurgitations to lactating mothers and their pups, but they spend the majority of their time guarding the den when the mother and father are away.
If necessary, a helper will warn the cubs to seek the den’s refuge by barking or rumble-growling. If a hyena is the danger, adults will drive them away by nipping at their haunches. Having witnessed this in the field, the ridiculously quick nipping from the jackal is countered by a hyena’s rapid snap. Together, the interactions between the species form this fluid dance-like movement between the two with the occasional squeal and bark throughout. It's quite the sight! One of our hyenas, Toad, a subadult female, discovered a black-backed jackal den and for weeks aggravated the resident jackals. But to our enjoyment, this allowed us to observe jackal pups and their parents respond to a hyena’s presence. Having to record where the individuals are, we stopped and watched the pups explore, play, and socialize outside the den on numerous occasions before they moved.
The black-backed jackal is a regular at a carcass session with hyenas. When together at a carcass, the hyenas are more often than not quite tolerable of a jackal's presence, within reason of course. It’s been interesting to watch certain hyenas respond more aggressively to a jackal during a feeding than others, who seem to not mind at all. The civil hyena-jackal relationship is often tested when a jackal will dart in with remarkable boldness to steal a scrap, often resulting in a lunge or a snap from the hyenas feeding. That said, this never stops the black-backed jackals from persisting in their efforts for a tid-bit or two of a fresh wildebeest, zebra, or cow. When not mooching off of a hyena kill, the black-backed jackal is certainly an efficient predator, and of young Thompson’s gazelle fawns in particular.
As parents, a mother and father display exceptional rearing strategies. Denning in holes that have been dug by other species like the warthog, the mother will spend nearly all of her time in the pups’ early weeks of life keeping them warm. She is then provisioned by a helper or the father with food to sustain her and the young. As the pups age, the family may move dens multiple times. By around the middle of the third month, the pups will begin sleeping outside of the den and following their parents on foraging missions. With continued growth they start to independently hunt and explore further from the den and by eight months they will have left their natal territory.
Personally, I am always thrilled at a sighting of a black-backed jackal. Their swift nature, unyielding gusto in fighting off a hyena from a den, attempts to snatch a bite or two off a carcass, and all of their other behavioral quirks make them a fascinating organism to observe here in the Mara.
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Personal Photos of Jared P. Grimmer
Source: Estes, Richard Despard: Behavior Guide to African Mammals. 1991