Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Felid field work (part 2)

So after 2015's minor successes, we got a new BSc student to pick up the force plate and video project with the cats. We first tried to work at the Cat Survival Trust (CST), but had a complete failure with any and all of the cats there (best summed up by Ed Yong here). Disheartened, but not broken, we went to the Wildlife Heritage Foundation where they have an incredible diversity and number of felids. We also took some additional fancy kit for dealing with small cats (2 mini force plates and a high speed camera) as we were trying to fill in some of the species in the small-medium size range.

Day 1 started with the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus), a small/medium size felid from South and Eastern Asia. As you can guess from their name they have a penchant for feeding on fish, and will, in a very un-catlike fashion, go swimming for their food. Because of this they have evolved short ears and tails, and partially webbed feet. Aquarius (our lucky volunteer cat) turned out to be a great subject as he would happily run back and forth across the platform, with the keeper calling and feeding him on one side, before I called him back and fed him at the other. I must admit, my cat feeding skills with tongs through a fence were not great to start, and he showed me what he thought by trying to grab me through the enclosure fences. I learned my lesson, and he ran back and forth until the keeper said we should stop, for fear we would soon have a rolly polly fishing cat from all the food.
Aquarius looking a bit startled when I visited on Day 2 to get a better picture when we weren't doing science with him
After such great success with Aquarius, we went to visit the Jack the jungle cat (Felis chaus) who it turns out is the only one of his kind in the UK. Jungle cats are somewhat unfortunately misnamed as they are regularly found in most environments except jungles from China to Egypt. Jack, was a shy cat and refused to come out despite the keeper's best attempts to bribe him out of his hide.

Jack when he did appear, but only after we had packed all our kit away
After the failure, we decided to go try with the cheetahs. We already worked with a cheetah at Colchester (another cat called Jack), but his walk was so consistent in speed we wanted to see if we could get something a bit different from the trio of males in the big enclosure. As they are relatively tame and it would be incredibly difficult to get all 3 into their house at the same time, the keeper escorted me in with all the equipment and stood gaurd as I set up. Or at least, I tried to:

It turns out that our platform, probably due to a snow leopard at the CST marking it, was really interesting to the cheetahs leading to them spending ages sniffing, licking, chewing and rolling all over it. After a while, the keeper decided it was best to try and focus on just one, and with a bit of coaxing (bribed with food) managed to get him to walk back and forth (the cheetah, not the keeper) over the platform a few times. With that, time was up for the day with looming clouds rapidly making it too dark to keep working. Typically Jack the jungle cat was busy climbing all over the fences...

Day 2 started bright and early (and a little damp) with a new keeper, and Yazhi, a beautiful small adult puma. She, like the rest of the big cats, was initially a bit skittish around the platform, but quickly become comfortable running around her enclosure and across the platform with some food treats. She, and the other pumas won the hearts of my colleagues who have announced they are now their favourite species of felids.
One of the pumas looking out through the glass at the crazy scientists in the rain. Photo by Viv Allen

From the pumas, we went onto the snow leopards. They remain one of the most gorgeous cat species (in my mind), and we were luck enough to work with the female, named Laila. If you are wondering how we picked which inidividuals to work with, it was all down to the keeper suggestions on which cats would be the most amenable to the work we were trying to do/bribery to get them to do it.

Laila walking perfectly over the forceplates
Laila was somewhat skittish to start, even chewing on the protective rubber matting, but after a bit of bribery she walked over the platform as we hoped. That is, until the wind blew and the tarp we had down on the ground rustled, and Laila become another one of the scaredy cats and went back to bed.

We then went on to work with Manzi, a very large lion weighing in at 200+kg. Due to the damp conditions when we first started he was sliding about a bit on the platform, so we extended the route he was walking and put wood chips down across the platform to take some of the mud off his feet. Soon enough he had it figured out and was happily walking about for his meaty treats.

Manzi walking off the platform
After all the successes with the "big" cat species we decided to see if we could have any more luck with some of the small species later in the afternoon, a time we were ensured would be our best chance as that is when they get fed and are more likely to be active. We attempted to work with the little rusty spotted cat, arguably the smallest of modern felid species, (Nuwara, our subject, weighs in about 1kg) that looks a bit like a kitten in size, but is a feisty felid:
Spot the tiny head
As you can probably guess, we had no luck with the furry little fiend who hid himself in a cave in his enclosure so went on to see if we could try the Pallas cat. Tula was our shy little subject who took a long time to come out of hiding, and even when she did was just a giant ball of fluff up the top of a tree.
Tula showing of the typical Pallas cat pose of just two eyes on a ball of fluff, cautiously watching the world

Suffice to say we didn't get any data off of her, but the disappointing end did not overshadow the great amount of success we had across the rest of our time at the WHF. We have to thank all of the keepers and personnel who helped us and accomodated us with our science. I am looking forward to seeing all of the data combined, and the resulting publication that it will inevitably lead to.

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