Behind the Spy: capturing rhino communication

By Kat Holmes Black rhino on camera trap

Click for black rhino video (courtesy of Courtney Marneweck)

This time I am talking to Courtney Marneweck who is conducting her PhD research on how rhinos use olfactory (sense of smell) communication. She is working through the University of KwaZulu-Natal in  South Africa and is trying to discover how rhinos can communicate with each other through dung odours at their communal middens (dung heaps), and of course she is using camera traps to do it!

[KH] Thank you for taking the time to speak to me Courtney. We are are excited to hear more about your rhino research, but firstly we heard a rumour that you are originally from Yorkshire! What do you think of our Yorkshire Pine Marten Project and do you have any clues on where we might find them this year? [CM] I think it sounds really exciting! I’m really looking forward to seeing the first footage you capture. I’m from North Yorkshire and I read that historically they were fairly common there, so I really hope you capture some in that area.  [KH] We hope so too! So you left lovely Yorkshire to study rhino behaviour in South Africa and to live in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. This is one of the oldest wildlife reserves in South Africa and has an amazing rhino history right? What is it like to camera trap there? [CM] Yes, there’s an incredible rhino history in this park with ‘Operation Rhino’ in the 1950s bringing back the white rhino from the brink of extinction. It’s a privilege to be doing my research here and to be a part of the rhino history. As well as rhinos, there’s also a rich predator guild here so camera trapping (no matter what your aim) is always really exciting. [KH] So how did you start camera trapping and do you remember what happened the first time you set a camera trap? A lot of us don’t exactly get off to a great start! [CM] This is the first time I’ve used camera traps and during my initial set up I really struggled with angles. I wanted to capture how the rhinos investigate the dung middens so I needed to see a lot of the ground, be close enough to see detailed behaviours and far away enough to capture the whole midden site. It took a few missed opportunities to get it right! [KH] It always takes practice at getting the right shots. What have you found out so far? [CM] I’m using camera traps to answer a couple of different questions for my PhD thesis. Firstly, basic information like how often do individual rhinos visit/defecate and does this change seasonally? Secondly, I am doing an experiment to try and discover the specific chemical odour cues that rhinos associate with certain characteristics (like age/sex/reproductive status) so I’ve synthetically created these odours and implanted them into the middens – I really enjoy watching the reactions and seeing it work! Here is a video of an aggressive reaction of a territorial male to what he is interpreting as a territorial threat. Rhino reacting to threat odour

Click for video (courtesy of Courtney Marneweck)

[KH] It is incredible to watch their reactions, what a great project! But you have also had some other visitors to your rhino camera traps; which have been your favourites? [CM] Rhino dung middens are often located on large animal paths which means a lot of traffic passes by. I think I’ve captured every mammal species in this park! My favourite video has to be of this pack of wild dogs playing. Wild dogs playing

Click for video (courtesy of Courtney Marneweck)

I’ve also recorded some amazing uninterrupted footage at night as my cameras are black flash (meaning no light/infrared are used so animals cannot see them at all). For example, lots of species use middens as foraging spots and to search for insects. Here’s an owl and a genet catching moths!  Owl catching moths

Click for video (courtesy of Courtney Marneweck)

Genet catching moths

Click for video (courtesy of Courtney Marneweck)

[KH] Those are some special captures – thanks for showing us. I am afraid you now have to tell us about your least favourite moment! What has been your biggest camera trap fail so far? [CM] My cameras have been up since October 2014 and I have this one camera that I refer to as my ‘cursed camera’. This is because every dung midden I’ve put it up at since October last year has suddenly had no rhinos visit anymore! As of last week it looks like the latest site might be active… fingers crossed.  [KH] Oh dear, I hope the curse has finally broken! So like all of us you have had your camera trap ups and downs. What would be your top tip for budding camera trappers out there? [CM] Don’t worry too much about making the camera perfectly stable. I started off by using 10cm long nails to secure my cameras to trees and animals STILL managed to knock them off! My game guard advised me that this would happen even if I used cable ties or nails, but I didn’t believe him! Now I am much more relaxed about setting them up and am able to get better positions and angles because of it. [KH] Wow, using 10cm nails is not something we usually have to worry about but your advice is definitely relevant to anyone trying to capture big game! Our last question is to ask what your camera trapping goal for the year is; I am guessing yours might include rhinos? [CM] My goal this year will definitely be to complete my odour experiment to identify cues that rhinos associate with specific characteristics. Also, a side goal of mine is to be a large contributor to the endangered species monitoring. I live in the research camp and we all help each other out. I get lots of footage of endangered species, like black rhino and wild dog, and elusive species, like leopard and cheetah, and I always pass it on to the monitors and it all helps at the end of the day.  Cheetah on camera trap

Click for cheetah video (courtesy of Courtney Marneweck)

Leopard on camera trap

Click for leopard video (courtesy of Courtney Marneweck)

[KH] Conservation monitoring is a very worthwhile goal, especially when you have such endangered species crossing your path. Will you keep us and our fellow camera trappers up to date on how you get on? [CM] Absolutely! I like to put up my favourite images/videos on my Twitter page – so if anyone is interested they can follow me @CourtneyMarne. [KH] Thank you so much for sharing your stories from the field Courtney and we look forward to catching up again! Courtney’s twitter page KwaZulu-Natal University Courtney explains Rhino middens

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