Hedgehogs can be difficult to find

The second hedgehog is near a small pond by the castle near our Institute. There had been heavy tree-cutting activity during the day, as some trees had become diseased and needed management. We feared that the hedgehog would be difficult to find if it had decided to go under broken branches. It can be hard to remove a stack of branches.

This time, I have the antenna, and while Javi knows the rough location, for a moment I feel like I am guiding the team. I play with the signal strength options in the receiver, and slowly, we get closer to the signal. It is exactly as we feared, the hedgehog is below a bunch of branches.

Everyone is on the job this time, the four of us looking for the hedgehog and passing around the receiver to find the spot with the best signal. Finally, we narrow down a location, and Javi commands Frodo, who once again comes to our rescue. The dog immediately points to the exact location. Javi secures the hedgehog, which is covered with leaves and soil, making it very difficult to spot with the naked eye.

We make quick notes of the capture site and time. The second one is in the box and we are done for the day. It is 19:30 [7:30 p.m.], and Javi concludes that it was a good field day.

Sometimes, he has to go out at night to capture the hedgehogs because they are most active during the night. If he is catching them for the first time, he needs to make a good guess about where they will appear. This could get frustrating, but with a companion like Frodo, the job gets a little easier.

It is also harder to locate the signal during the recapturing process. According to Javi, the first hedgehog had moved a good distance of 100 to 200 metres during a single night. It had survived a road crossing.

Hedgehogs worldwide are in danger of being victims of road kills. Their strategy against predators is to stay put and become a spiny ball. This does not exactly help if they become stunned by an approaching car and remain on the road.

The job is not over, as there is still a final part. Javi has made a small house with a cozy habitat for the hedgehogs. One of the aviaries for birds has been converted into a hedgehog shed. It is a big 4- by 3-metre cage, with the floor divided into two partitions. There is some dry grass on the floor and a wooden house for shelter.

I once asked Javi if hedgehogs like the presence of another individual. He explained that hedgehogs are solitary animals, and they usually do not tolerate the presence of other individuals. But there was a time when one of the hedgehogs decided to make his way below the shed’s fence and two of them were found together in the small house the next morning.

We install food and water for the hedgehogs, and finally part ways and leave the animals be for the night. 

Science outreach

I got a ride back with Javi and had the chance to ask why he was doing what he was doing. He simply said he was very curious about the survival strategies of insectivores. He had studied shrews before beginning his Ph.D., and had discovered that shrews are able to shrink their skulls during the winter. This is a phenomenal discovery, and he was thrilled to speak about it.

He wants to do the same study with hedgehogs. They do not shrink their skulls, but hibernate in a particular way. He wants to see if he can identify the conditions that affect movement and the quality of hedgehog hibernation during winter.

Today’s trip was a perfect example of science outreach at its best. Javi took the time to explain the nuances of the field of animal tracking to me—a biomedical engineer—and two other researchers.

He is preparing for his post-Ph.D. life and is applying for new grants to study moles. Moles are also insectivores and live underground. They must have some unique strategy to survive winter, but we know little about it, and scientific knowledge is lacking. Javi wants to dedicate his efforts in this direction.

Today’s trip was a perfect example of science outreach at its best. Javi took the time to explain the nuances of the field of animal tracking to me—a biomedical engineer—and two other researchers. One of them studies vultures in Spain, and the other has been working in the Amazon forests with bird conservation programs.

During our field trip, we encountered some elderly women from the village on their evening walk. They saw the curled-up hedgehog and asked if it was still alive. We reassured them that it was, and explained that we are from the Institute and are studying them for research.

In his spare time, Javi draws and is active with MaxCine, the outreach arm of the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology. They organize educational events for kids and adults and attempt to engage people in scientific discussions with their artistic approach.

It is important to interact with people and give them the opportunity to learn more about animals and the human effects on their habitat.

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All images and video courtesy of Hemal Naik

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