Review: Research Assistant at the Limpopo Dwarf Mongoose Project

In 2016 I joined the Limpopo Dwarf Mongoose Project as a Research Assistant. This is a long term behavioural study. Mongoosers (an informal title) work 6 days a week collecting data and carrying out experiments. The work is with habituated mongoose groups so you can really observe them closely. Dwarf mongooses are cooperatively breeding social mammals with loads of interesting behaviours and complex group structures.

For the sake of ease I have formatted this in the same way as previous reviews of volunteer experiences, but it was more like a job (without the payment aspect, I suppose).

Location: Sorabi Rock Lodge Reserve (nr Hoedspruit), Limpopo, South Africa

Duration: 1 month (I was meant to stay for 3, which is the usual RA term, but had to leave early for personal reasons).

Cost: I paid flights at about £500. Food and accommodation were provided. We had to pay for extras like alcohol and chocolate, and fuel for trips on days off. Overall, pretty low cost!

Pre-Departure:

I got the RA job by insistently emailing one of my lecturers, Professor Andy Radford, asking if he could get me some field experience. The DWP is under his research group and when they were looking for summer assistants he invited me for an interview.

This was with Andy and Julie Kern, who set up the project for her Masters and continued on to do a PhD and post-doc on it, which she is just wrapping up. (Julie set up the DWP from scratch on her own and has grown it into a really reputable quality research project. She’s also just absolutely lovely and a massive inspiration to me.)

I got the job, which was brilliant and a nice confidence boost since quite a lot of people were interviewed. From there, all I had to do was book flights and buy some bush kit.

The project:

The DWP isn’t for anyone who is work-shy, but then what is in zoology jobs?

The field work is 6 days a week and is a combination of:

  • Collecting baseline data – waking time, time leaving the burrow, grooming behaviours, foraging scans (who is foraging near each other and how near, every half hour), sentinel scans (who is on sentinel, details of their post, also every half hour), sentinel ad libs at other times, information on latrines, any inter-group interactions, snake mobs, when they arrive back at a burrow, when they go to bed. That’s just what I can recall off the top of my head!
An inquisitive mongoose checks out my field notes
  • GPS tracking – using GPS units to record while we followed them around and take waypoints every 15 minutes with a code for what the mongooses were doing (foraging, moving, inactive). Then you’d inevitably forget to save your track or clear your track or something and end up recording the whole walk to or from the house…
Morning stretch
  • Weights – technically part of baseline data, but definitely worth its own explanation. The group is weighted in the morning, at lunch, and in the evening. We used mashed up hard boiled egg to tempt them into the scales, trying to get at least half the group without overfeeding them. We also tried to mix up which half this was, but that’s hard when some ‘gooses are egg-crazy and others couldn’t care less. Certain individuals would get very aggressive and dominate the scales, waiting for more egg. Always a struggle, but definitely something that got easier with practise.
How about some of that egg then?
  • Dye-marking – to continue being able to identify individual mongooses they were marked using blonde hair dye. Of course, coats grow and moult, and these had to be updated. I was there in South African winter when it wasn’t so bad but recently a whole group has been lost on the project due to dye marks getting out of date during moults! You try prodding a mongoose with a paintbrush taped to the end of a long stick… definitely my least favourite job.

 

  • Playback experiments – baseline data is useful, but at the end of the day you want to carry out experimental work. Some amazing papers have come out of the project. Lots of these experiments are done by playbacks. You have to record sentinel calls from specific individuals (a challenge if that individual never goes on sentinel, I recall). These recordings are edited and then used in playback experiments with a field speaker. The work going on when I was there was about whether the dominant female as the ‘focal individual’ was more likely to ‘trust’ a sentinel native to her group or an immigrant (controversial, I know).

 

  • Data entry – obviously all of this had to go into a database, and the maps had to be uploaded and sorted. It’s always the least fun part.

When I was there in South African winter we left the house around 8am and were back around 5-6pm. In the summer there is an early early start, but a long lunch break, just due to the times the mongooses are active. This means the RAs have to find the mongooses twice a day (not always easy) but they can enjoy some daytime off, whereas it was essentially always dark in our down-time. It also rains sometimes in summer, and since mongooses hide inside in the rain, so can project staff! That said, the bush is a lot more green, making following goosies an even bigger struggle. Even with people who have done both seasons, the jury seems to be out on which is preferable.

I loved spending all day out in the bush. The mongooses are fun animals to work with, they have definite and distinct personalities and are really charismatic. They also all have names according to the group theme (Half Pints include Chardonnay, Carlsberg, etc.), which personally I’m a big fan of (yes we anthropomorphised, but I don’t think it interfered with our date collection!).

But the other half of the joy was everything else you could see around the reserve, giraffes, zebra, wildebeest, etc. Never a dull moment! Less enjoyable things about African bush species – eating lunch with agitated baboons running in circles around you (more of a problem for Sophie, who became the unwilling queen of the baboons), and that one morning I’m about 70% sure I saw a leopard, that thankfully ran in the opposite direction.

Accommodation/Area:

The house was great! It was in the corner of the reserve. I shared a room with Sophie, another research assistant and also a friend from our uni dive club, though I’m sure she’d agree it was in South Africa that we really got close.

The other room was shared by the other RA, Billy, and our project manager, Anna. It was a really nice atmosphere in the house, we exercised together every evening (most evenings… some evenings…) to the hilarious Insanity Max 30 videos that were saved on the computer and chilled out with beer and wine into the night.

The reserve has several ‘copjes’, rocky outcrops that are quite dramatic in the flat bush. There was a very small one of these beside the house (we called it the copjette) that we sometimes climbed to sit and have evening beers (sundowners, to those in the know, apparently).

Copjes on the reserve

Nothing is in walking distance, but the project does have transport. When I was there this was mostly in the form of a crappy Nissan truck I fell in love with, Stuart, while the other car, Chico, was at the panel beaters. Now I think Stu and Chico have both been replaced with a higher spec model. It’s a new era for the DWP!

Time off:

The one day off a week was flexible, in that we could choose to take an afternoon and the next morning if there was a party at a friend’s reserve we wanted to go to… and that’s what happened a couple of the ‘days’ off that I was there.

We also used time off the climb the bigger copjes on the reserve, which was great fun and rewarded us with incredible views.

When I had to leave, Julie let us have an extra day off to go to Kruger as she says everyone on the project should go (have I mentioned I love her?). Kruger was incredible and an experience I will never forget.

There was a restaurant fairly nearby that we went to for dinner sometimes.

There’s a lot more I sadly didn’t get to do in the area and definitely lots of ways to make the most of your day off so long as you are motivated to do it (with early starts and long days, it’s easy to be tempted to just relax… also probably worthwhile, but if you do join this sort of project remember you are there for a finite time, so carpe diem and all that).

Conclusion:

My only regret about the DWP is that I wasn’t able to stay the whole time. It definitely gave me a proper taste of field work and the days when nothing is going right, and how monotonously repetitive it can be, and everything else that sucks about doing science properly and working with live animals that don’t do as they’re told. If anyone who has worked there claims they haven’t stood in the middle of the bush shouting and swearing at a mongoose, they’re lying.

But at the end of the day it’s all part of the fun! I gained a lot of skills, I loved being outdoors all day and seeing amazing things, and it was absolutely made by the people and of course the gooses.

Pro tip: Take a good camera with a telephoto lens!

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