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December: 10 Years of Dwarf Mongoose Research Project | News and features

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A University of Bristol project set up to monitor wild populations of dwarf mongooses in South Africa has celebrated its tenth anniversary.

Professor Andy Radford, Dr. Amy Morris Drake, Dr. Julie Kern and their team from the School of Biological Sciences have spent the past decade observing these attractive mammals year-round in their natural habitat, making remarkable discoveries that can only be made through long-term field studies.

The duration of the study means that the academics were able to document the complete life history of many individuals in the dwarf ferret community, revealing the secrets of their social interactions, ways of communication, friendships and conflicts.

Importantly, the team made these observations without dealing with animals that are used to their close proximity, can be individually tagged with blond hair dye using an elongated paintbrush, and are even trained to weigh themselves.

Professor Radford said: “There are so many reasons why this project is special. It is ours because we built it from scratch and then managed to maintain it for such a long time. It is very difficult to carry on with a field project year after year.

“But one of the huge advantages if you can do that, is that you start accumulating data that would otherwise be impossible. You can track individuals from birth to death, you know everything that happened in their lives.

“It also allows you to study rare events. For example, a member of a dominant breeding pair may be replaced only once every two years, on average, but by observing a ferret for ten years, we have seen enough events like this to answer exciting questions interesting.”

These inquisitive animals possess complex social structures and remarkable anthropomorphic traits, which have been reported in several scientific journals.

The team discovered that individuals monitor the actions of their groupmates through audio cues and store this information for later. The dwarf ferret who played the guard – or watchman – in burrow social grooming sessions that evening is rewarded. At the same time, members who are heard to exhibit bullying behavior will be avoided at a later time.

The project also revealed evidence that dwarf mongooses work together in the face of external threats including those posed by rival groups and predators, and form best friends who preferentially help them. Much of their behavior is supported by a range of calls indicating different bits of information such as warnings of danger, the need for help, and the presence of a guard to watch for problems.

Professor Radford said: “We are able to combine long-term life history observation with field experiments. Achieving the latter is often difficult – it requires patience, perseverance and skill, which the field team has in abundance – but the rewards are substantial.

“The more time you spend with an animal – the more you study it – the more questions you have instead of answers. This is how science advances.”

The team hopes to continue the project for many years to come, if funding permits.

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