Haunted Serengeti


Happy October! Many of our Snapshot night photos are pretty spooky looking — mysterious eyeshine, strange lights, ghostly figures — submit your favorite “haunted” Snapshot image to our blog (comment below) or on our Facebook page and I’ll repost some of the creepiest!

While you’re waiting…

We know you’re eager to get back to classifying wildebeest and other crazy critters, and good news is that Meredith has recently returned from the field with the next instalment of Snapshot Serengeti! So get ready! But we’re still in the process of uploading the photographs, checking timestamps, and doing all the other tedious but necessary pre-processing, and it will be a few more weeks before we get the next season online.

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So while you’re waiting, why not checkout the Zooniverse’s newest camera trapping project: Wildcam Gorongosa?

Nestled in nearby Mozambique, Wildcam Gorongosa was developed as a joint effort between the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Biointeractive Program, the Gorongosa Restoration Project, and, of course, the Zooniverse.  Previously decimated by almost 20 years of civil war, Gorongosa National Park wildlife is rebounding thanks to an enormous conservation initiative. As part of that initiative, researchers have set out a grid of cameras, much like ours in the Serengeti. And now they need your help to identify the animals caught on their cameras. While many of the animals present in Gorongosa are the same as in Serengeti, they also have some critters we don’t: otters, nyala, oribi, and – my personal favorite – African wild dogs.

You can read up a bit more on the project here, but why not head on over to Wildcam Gorongosa and see what you can see!

New jobs in the Zooniverse!

Zooniverse is currently looking for a front-end developer to join the Oxford team. The key aim of the position is to help build data querying and visualization tools for educators and researchers, and, well, everyone, to better explore and engage with data from Snapshot Serengeti-style projects.

More details can be found here.

We are accepting applications *now* until August 10, so please share this with anyone you know who might be interested.

Wander over to Wildebeest Watch!

Wildebeest Watch Home

Can’t get enough of these gnarly gnus? Head on over to our new spinoff project, Wildebeest Watch!

In collaboration with Dr Andrew Berdhal from the Santa Fe Institute, and Dr Allison Shaw at the University of Minnesota, we are taking a closer look at what the wildebeest are doing in the Snapshot Serengeti images to try and better understand the details of the world’s largest mammal migration.

Every year, 1.3 million wildebeest chase the rain and fresh grass growth down from the northern edge of the ecosystem down to the short grass plains in the southeast. We have a broad-scale understanding of where they are moving across the landscape, but don’t understand how they make these detailed decisions of where and when to move on a moment-to-moment basis. Wildebeest as individuals aren’t known for being particularly smart — so we want to know how they use the “wisdom of the crowd” to make herd-level decisions that get them where they need to go.

So while you’re waiting for more photos of lions, hyenas, and other sharp-toothed beasts, why not wander over to Wildebeest Watch to help us understand the collective social behavior of these countless critters?

Notes from the field

Note: Meredith wrote this blog post, but is having internet problems in Africa, so I am posting it on her behalf.

Pole sana on the lack of recent field updates – it’s been a busy week or two and I’ve traveled halfway across Africa in the meanwhile! Sad to say, I’ve left Serengeti behind for now. I was able to set up almost all of the replacement cameras I brought down with me and completed three new rounds for my playback experiments. I then took a few days off and spent my birthday traveling around in Ethiopia, soaking in some history and culture (and eating really excellent food!). It’s nice to have a break from constant science every once in a while. I went around what is known as the “Northern Circuit” and visited the four historic cities of Gondar, Lalibella, Aksum, and Bahir Dar. I got to visit island monasteries, rock-hewn churches, the palace of the Queen of Sheba, and even made a trip to the church purported to be where the True Ark of the Covenant is kept! Have to say, the trip made me feel very “Indiana Jones”, right up until the point where I got ill from drinking the water…

After a week in Ethiopia, I flew down to Johannesburg, South Africa, to meet up with Craig and another graduate student we’re working with, Natalia. Natalia is interested in cognition and has been testing the creative problem solving and impulse control of different kinds of carnivores. We’ve spent the last few days at a reserve outside of Pretoria called Dinokeng, run by Kevin “the Lion Whisperer” Richardson. Kevin maintains a park with dozens of semi-captive lions, leopards, and hyenas which Natalia can work with for her intelligence experiments. While Natalia has been busy with her research, I’ve been putting together a rig that will enable me to examine herbivore responses to four predator species: cheetah, wild dog, lion, and hyena. Two of these predators (lion and cheetah) hunt by sneaking up on their prey, whereas the others (wild dog and hyena) rely on endurance to run prey down. I’m looking to see whether prey respond to each species of predator differently, or whether there are consistent differences in anti-predatory response by predator hunting type. I’ll be simulating predator encounters because it would be incredibly difficult to observe a sufficient number of actual encounters in the wild. As soon as I find a good internet connection, I’ll post pictures of just exactly how I plan on doing this — it’s pretty great, and I don’t want to ruin the surprise!

Just this morning, the three of us packed up all of our gear and took a small plane out of Pretoria up to South Africa’s Northern Cape province. We’ll be spending the next three to four weeks up here in the Kalahari conducting our experiments. In addition to looking at anti-predator responses, I’ll be helping to set up a NEW camera trap grid (perhaps Snapshot Serengeti will be joined by Kalahari Cameras sometime in the near future…?). Now that we’re back in action, more updates soon!

Snapshot Serengeti’s first scientific publication — today!

Yay! Says cheetah.

“Yay!” Says cheetah.

Champagne corks will be popping tonight. Snapshot Serengeti’s first peer reviewed scientific publication comes out today in Nature’s Scientific Data journal. Please give yourselves a round of applause, because we’d never have been able to do this without you.

The paper is a “data descriptor” instead of a traditional research article, meaning that we describe the detailed methods that led to the Snapshot Serengeti consensus dataset. In addition to describing all the excrutiating details of how we set the cameras in the field, we talk about the design of Snapshot Serengeti, setting retirement rules and aggregation algorithms to combine all of our answers into a single expert-quality dataset. We don’t talk about the cool ecological results just yet (those are still only published in my dissertation), but we do talk about all the cool things we hope the dataset will lead to. The dataset is publicly available here. Anyone can use it — to ask ecological questions about Serengeti species, evaluate better aggregation algorithms for citizen science research, or — we get this a lot — use the images plus consensus data to train and test better computer recognition algorithms.

Feel free to download the dataset and explore the data on your own. We’d love to hear what you find!

More mud

So much for being clean again…

P1000782Norbert, our Tanzanian field assistant, always laughs when I come in from the field covered in mud. He takes pictures each time, telling me that “when I write my book” I need to publish these photos to show people that “to get PhD, you must be THIS much mud!”


All About Lions

Guess who just gave a fancy talk about Lion Project and Snapshot Serengeti!

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Major props to TCS Expeditions and the Four Seasons giving me a chance to talk about our project and spend the day in such a beautiful resort. I highly recommend the showers — feels good to be clean again!

Savannah Sunrise

The work I’m doing out here in the field involves plenty of early mornings and late evenings. It’s more than a bit exhausting, but there is one fantastic bonus: amazing sunrises and sunsets! Here are some of my favorites from over the past few days:






Stuck in the Mud

Getting to know the mud of Serengeti has been the major hurdle of my wet season. The mud out here comes, I have discovered, in many different treacherous flavors. Surprisingly, you can get a car through the largest puddles by plowing straight through the middle, but the edges of these small lakes (that you might, say, drive on to go *around* the seemingly-impassible body of water) are death-traps. Silty pale sand on the road is often a sign of stickiness and tall grass can hide all manner of trouble. If the sun happens to bake the right kind of crust on the road after a rainfall, solid ground can collapse right out from under your wheels: as I discovered the other evening, under you go. I had been driving out to an area of the park called Barafu when my journey ground to a halt in two feet of thick mud.


Often, with the right amount of tenacity, you call bully your way through the mud. Locking the wheels, jacking up the car, throwing spare tires and dead trees and rocks and whatever else you can find under your floundering tires sometimes works. If you’re in the right areas at the right time of day, passing tour cars often go out of their way to help you out (a favor I try and return at every possible convenience, building up karma for the next big stick). This particular situation, however, was neither the right place nor the right time. It was early evening, and I was miles and miles away from Serengeti Central. Asking for help this late and this far from our field crew would have been irresponsible and, fortunately, unnecessary — I had been heading out camping that evening to start with, and always keep the car stocked with emergency supplies (sleeping bag, snacks, and, of course, a bottle of Safari Lager).

While it was still light, I tried to make it the kilometer or two to a nearby kopje, hoping that somewhere along the route my cellphone reception would kick in and I could at least send out some coordinates for a tow the next morning. No dice: the sun quickly began to set and I had to beat a hasty retreat to the car. Making the best of an inconvenient situation, I popped the top off of a beer and crawled up onto the hood to watch as the sun drift below the horizon. I almost spilled half that beer down my front when, with a roar, a lion emerged from the grass less than two meters away from where I was sitting.

She was a lone female, a bit scrawny and mangy (I was pretty sure I recognized her from earlier on in the day). Stepping onto the road, she sauntered over to the car, roaring every few steps. Was she calling for the rest of her pride? I couldn’t see or hear any others, and the lioness circled the Land Rover only once before continuing down the road. Clutching my beer, I experienced an emotion I have felt only once before, diving with great white sharks: knowing that you’re safe (probably), in your cage or in your car, but also understanding that you’re out in a predator’s natural habitat – and that those predators know you’re there. I can only think to describe it as an overwhelming sense of respect tinged with adrenaline, followed by an aftertaste of awe and thankfulness when the predator finally passes you by.

Needless to say, as soon as the lioness was a fair distance away, I scooted quickly back inside the car and may have even rolled the windows up a bit. I could hear her roaring for the next hour or so, and based on the footprints in the mud surrounding my Land Rover the next morning, she came back once or twice to check up on me.

On a lighter note, I’d like to make a special shout-out to the six-tour car cavalcade of young university men that took time out of their safari the next morning to drag me out and feed me chocolate bars (perhaps have to get stuck more often…?)


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