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:
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.