Two charismatic caracals' favourite snacks

First, to introduce the main cat characters. Protea is one of the adult female caracals and the 24th cat to be captured on the project. Her territory stretches along the white, sandy beaches on the wild, west coast from the Cape of Good Hope lighthouse through to Kommetjie, which she uses as a highway to travel from one hunting spot to the next. The UCP intern team have been following her movements closely, as she is one of the few females collared, as well as one of the few cats collared in the southern part of the Cape Peninsula. Titan is another interesting southern Peninsula character. As his name suggests, he's the biggest caracal captured, weighing in at 16kg (more than double Protea's mass!), and traveling pretty impressive distances usually on the eastern coast from Simon's Town down to around Dias beach.

Through ongoing effort scat and prey remains have been found at GPS clusters, and prey items identified, and these lend important data for the caracal diet analysis. Indeed, the data on these two cats have revealed some interesting results on what they like to eat, but most importantly that they don't seem to be very fussy eaters! Some of the most common prey items are Egyptian geese; these are Protea's favourite by far!  Other frequent items on her menu are sacred ibis, various gull species, and cape and white-breasted cormorants. Cape cormorants are a common breeding resident near Cape Point, but are an endemic species that is classified as endangered due to recent rapid declines.

Protea's feeding site remains include a few large spotted genets and grysbok, and the scat analysis so far shows she likes cape grey mongoose, and the occasional domestic cat.

The rest of her prey items are an assortment of birds: little egret, yellow-billed duck and cape francolin come up fairly regularly.

Of course, it's always exciting when unexpected prey items are found. Two notable species that became lunch are a rock kestrel, a species known to breed around the Cape Point area, and a sandwich tern, which is especially common along the coast in summer. Protea continues her finer taste for endangered birds in her partiality for African penguin. These seabirds are sometimes recorded off the west coast, presumably commuting to the nearby breeding colony at Boulders Beach in Simon's Town on the eastern side, which must be when she is able to catch them.

The value of scat analysis is that it reveals the small prey items often overlooked in other methods, probably because they are eaten whole! The scat analysis tells us that Protea likes to snack on smaller prey too... shrews and vlei rats feature often, and sometimes snake scales are also found.

Titan's diet is pretty similar, but a little less varied. He loves cape cormorant, and has certainly eaten a lot of them! The scat confirms this penchant for cormorant and also reveals that he occasionally goes for a rock hyrax (a.k.a. dassie), doesn't turn his nose up at vlei rats, striped mice and shrews, and also likes the salty taste of African penguin. One of the most amazing findings in Titan's scat were distinctive black and white quills! Yes, he's fierce enough to take on a crested porcupine.

A few more caracal lunches, and some mystery claws!

Ongoing student protests at UCT have really slowed things down, as many of my student volunteers have been unable to come to campus. It has been a very tumultuous time, with anxiety levels high. As a result I have not managed to process many samples. Nevertheless, there have been a few interesting ones!

One of the most intriguing samples was this one:

Mystery sample

Mystery sample

The fluffy grey hair looked rodent-like, but the bones were fairly robust, with a large vertebra. The strangest part was the huge claws! They couldn’t be from a cat, as they weren’t hooked enough, they were too large to be from a squirrel, rat, genet or mongoose, and they didn’t quite look like bird claws. I was at a loss…

After asking around and getting a few different suggestions for what this mystery prey item might be, I got a final say from Woody Cotterill, who has an interest and expertise in small mammals. Woody came to the lab to take a look at some of my samples and give some advice on how to go about identifying prey items.

Taking one look at the sample in the petri dish he said “It’s definitely Bathyergus.” Some quick Googling revealed that the prey item was most likely a Cape dune mole rat. This species is not only endemic to South Africa (i.e. its found only here), but its also the biggest of all the mole rats! I managed to get my hands on a taxidermic specimen, and was very surprised by how large it was. Roughly chihuahua-sized! But with much more impressive claws.

Now that I’m focusing more on prey identification, the detective work of the project has begun. My focus at the moment is to pull together a reference library to help me find out what these caracals are eating – not just from the scat but also from the kill remains found in the field. This involves looking at hair under a microscope, so I’m collecting hair from all potential prey items. I’ll also be using teeth and claws, as well as feathers for the birds. While the majority of samples will be the usual favourites on the menu, I’m sure there’ll be a whole lot more mysteries to solve.

Appreciation post

This project has challenged me in many ways so far, not least because I took it on so late in the year. I feel under constant time pressure with so much to catch up on and get done. Thankfully, I have a team of wonderful student volunteers who are passionate about carnivore biology and conservation! They have helped so much with processing my samples in their breaks between lectures and practicals, fitting it all into their busy schedules. So thanks guys!

The people who have helped me out so far are: Alveena Aziz, Caton Schutte, Clara Steyn, Dayna Hegarty, Kaelin Stemmet, Katherine Chaplin, Kyra McKellar, Lindsay Powell, Megan Pockalny, Michelle Pretorius, Shakirah Rylan, Tara van Ryneveld and Vivienne Coetzee. Thanks also go to some of the UCP interns who have become involved.

Gabi Leighton

SAWMA symposium 2016

I was fortunate enough to attend the annual South African Wildlife Management Association symposium in Tzaneen, Limpopo last month.

I presented some of the preliminary findings on the Cape Town caracals’ diet, focusing on the differences between two methods (kills found at GPS clusters and scat). We had to make a poster and also give a 5 minute speed-presentation of our work.

This was a really valuable few days of interesting talks and people. Very glad that I went and was super pleased to win the prize for the best student poster!

Preview of the poster I presented at the symposium

Preview of the poster I presented at the symposium

I think the next symposium will be in the Western Cape, so hopefully I can go again, and this time do a longer talk about my work!

Gabi Leighton

Some (very) preliminary diet findings

Here are a few of the more interesting prey items found in the scat analysis so far. Most of the samples contain mammalian prey items (i.e. composed mainly of hair), and of those, most seem to be rodent. I still need to go through all those with hair and look at cross-sections under the microscope to identify the species (or at least to genus level). Nevertheless, these are the more exciting ones:

Hope you enjoy the photos!

Gabi Leighton

Caracal diet field trips

I was lucky enough to join in on some field work action earlier this year… This involves setting traps to catch the cats (much trickier than it sounds!) and investigating GPS clusters (i.e. points where the cats have been hanging out for a while) to find evidence of kills and scat, which I’m using for my diet analysis.

No such thing as a free caracal lunch

This is just a brief introduction to the caracal diet aspect of the Urban Caracal Project, which will also be documented here.

I’m an MSc Biological Sciences student in my first year of study at the University of Cape Town. My research aim is to investigate the diet of caracal (aka “rooikat”) living and hunting in the urban spaces of Cape Town, South Africa. These elusive yet adaptable medium-sized cats have managed to persist in a city with an increasingly hardening urban edge; using greenbelts, empty land as well as natural areas. The latter is mostly land forming part of the Table Mountain National Park (TMNP).

Most citizens of Cape Town are surprised to hear that caracals live in such close proximity, perhaps illustrating how good they are at going unseen! As can be seen on this website, a lot of really exciting work is being done to study the effects that urbanisation is having on these cats, from movement patterns and gene flow to rodenticide and disease exposure. My project is a small part of this larger ongoing research effort and will investigate their diet. However, I’m hoping to make it a bit more interesting for myself by putting the dietary data in a spatial context, linking what they choose to eat, where they choose to eat it and how this is influenced by urbanisation. We expect that while there might be easy pickings near the urban edge, this may draw caracals closer to the risks of the big city… There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch!

Gabi Leighton