Caught in the act

I am sure you were all enthralled by the recent shots of a male lion with a hyena clamped in his jaw. A truly awesome capture. The reality is that action shots like that are few and far between. Snapshot Serengeti has had only a handful in the millions of images that have been classified to date.

So when Karen and Deon Scheepers caught the following action on camera trap on the nature reserve in South Africa where I used to live I just had to share it with you;

Wildebeest

Wildebeest

 

uh oh.. look behind you!

 

leopard on the hunt

 

 

What a capture… a leopard on the hunt. The out come was unknown, reserve staff looked for a carcass but didn’t find anything. To think I used to walk those trails every day, I wonder how many times a leopard walked out behind me!

Thanks Karen and Deon Scheepers for sharing these shots.

Funding from National Geographic Society

Craig writes:

We have just been awarded a second Expedition Council grant from the National Geographic Society to extend Snapshot Serengeti until the end of the year. This covers the end of Season 9.

You, our Snapshot Serengeti volunteers, are the people who make this work possible.  Your careful classifications provide the necessary rigor to make Snapshot a truly scientific endeavor, and we also rely on your enthusiasm and insights in highlighting the many interesting, intriguing and unusual photos, which will someday be compiled in articles and books.

The following paragraphs are taken from our successful application, and give an overview of Snapshot Serengeti’s success broadly:

Our large-scale camera trap grid provides a continuous record of the abundance and distribution of herbivores, insectivores and carnivores in the northern 1000-km2 of the long-term Serengeti lion study area. The camera traps provide accurate abundance estimates of 20 different herbivore species across the Serengeti and near-perfect measures of lion numbers in the woodlands portion of our long-term study area.  The camera traps also reveal that cheetahs are able to coexist with lions by waiting a minimum of 12 hrs after the lions have departed from a particular site and that lions and hyenas largely come into contact with each other as a result of their mutual attraction to wildebeest and gazelle. Our grid also provides a remarkably detailed portrait of the wildebeest migration, showing how movements vary from year to year in response to annual variations in rainfall. Besides providing novel scientific data, many of the camera-trap images are artistic, captivating, breathtaking and hilarious. Because daytime pictures are taken in sequences of three, they can be combined into a brief animation that make the portraits come alive.

The camera-trap imagery has also provided the foundation for a successful online “citizen-science” initiative, called Snapshot Serengeti, where hundreds of thousands of volunteers have counted and identified the animal species captured in over 4,000,000 photographs. We have developed a series of “consensus criteria” for accepting their species identifications, which have 97% accuracy compared to the assessments of a panel of expert field biologists, and our Snapshot volunteers have developed an active online community who share particularly exciting images.

With funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, we have partnered with the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota to develop an undergraduate laboratory sequence in “Savanna Ecology” where students read relevant articles from the scientific literature, form hypotheses about the behavior and ecology of a species of particular interest, classify and count animals from a random subset of online camera-trap photos, access the overall database, test predictions with simple statistics and present lab reports in a group setting.

Our pre-proposal to extend the camera-trap project for an additional 3-5 yrs has recently been approved by the National Science Foundation, and we will submit the full proposal at the beginning of August.  If funded, we will collaborate with National Geographic to submit a proposal to the educational program at NSF to expand the classroom activities of Snapshot Serengeti to middle- and high-school students around the US.

We have discussed the pictorial potential of SnapshotSerengeti with senior staff at National Geographic, who are interested in featuring a selection of Snapshot highlights in a 2015 article for the Magazine and are also considering publishing the Snapshot photos in either hardcopy or as an e-book. Many of the individual photos are stunningly beautiful, and many more have a unique freshness because the animals have no sense of a human presence. The daytime “triplet” animations live and breathe like pictures in a fantasy novel.  

Our first Expedition Council grant covered the first 3 mos of a 15-month gap in NSF funding when our most recent NSF grant ended in September 2013.  In addition to the first EC grant of $30,000, we raised $55,000 from an Indiegogo crowd-funding effort. A small NSF grant to support my upcoming sabbatical includes a supplementary $25,000 to cover fieldwork in July, August and September.  The $30,000 awarded in the second Expedition Council grant assures continuity of the Serengeti studies until the end of December 2014.  

For the upcoming NSF renewal, we have assembled a well-regarded scientific team to study the Serengeti food web by integrating the lion tracking and Snapshot cameras with new measurements of grasses and soils.  The approval of our NSF pre-proposal means that we have survived the first 75% cut in grant applications, so we have a reasonably good chance of sustaining the project long term.  But even if not successful, the extension of the camera traps for another few months will be extremely valuable, as this will be the first opportunity to measure the wildebeest migration during an active El Nino – rainfall in the Serengeti is highly sensitive to the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI), and the short rains of November-December have largely failed during the past 3-4 yrs of La Nina weather patterns.
 
       

Africa on my door step

So those of you who have read my blogs are probably used to hearing me bemoaning the fact that I am no longer in Africa but am back in France whilst I am studying towards a degree. I can’t really complain, life is still good, but the European wildlife feels a bit lacking when you have been used to the mega fauna of Africa.
I have however continued to put out my camera traps in order to survey my property and the surrounding countryside and it’s busier than you would think. Badgers, foxes, hares, otters, roe deer, squirrels, stone martens and wild boar make regular contact with my paltry two cameras. Not really enough camera power to base a study on but interesting all the same.
The highlight has been the discovery that one little favourite of mine from Africa has followed me to France; the genet. Yes the common genet (Genetta genetta) lives in France and I am ecstatic to say right by my house too.
It seems no-one really knows how they got here but it was probably something to do with the Romans centuries ago being brought over from the Magreb region of North Africa. They are now naturalised animals in Spain, Portugal and France. Refreshingly for an introduced animal they are not invasive and have little impact if any on the native wildlife, so I can go on loving them with a clear conscience.
Here are a couple of shots of genets in France for your enjoyment!

 

Common genetCommon genetCommon genet

I am…

Dr. Swanson!

I have to admit that the defense was way easier than I had anticipated. In fact, I got to spend much of the two hour question session talking about possibilities for future citizen science projects and the cool things that could be done with camera trap surveys. Once things settle down on my end, I’m looking forward to sharing some of my most recent results here on this blog.

…But it might be a few weeks. Right now I’m in Brazil, crewing for my boyfriend in the world hot-air balloon championship. We are centered in Rio Clara, and this place is beautiful. Although more cultivated than some of the places we are used to flying (e.g. Serengeti), we have still managed to find some wildlife. When we (the chase vehicle) managed to find the landed balloon past a maze of 12-foot-tall sugar cane fields, the co-pilot looked at me nervously and said, “there are no hyenas in South America….right?” Because apparently they had seen a rather large canid ripping into some carcass on some abandoned hillside on the flight. And it turns out that there are maned wolves here, which is probably what they saw. Maned wolves actually vaguely resemble giant red foxes (~ 3 ft tall at the shoulder), and are in a genus all their own (Chrysocyon), and are considered “vulnerable” (as a species) by the Brazilian government. They are pretty cool.

Maned wolf; credit Mario Pineda flickr cc

Maned wolf; credit Mario Pineda flickr cc

Funny story. When I was applying to graduate school, long before I decided to work with Craig at the University of Minnesota, I had wanted to study maned wolves in the Brazilian cerrado (tropical savanna). And, in the end, I turned down an offer to do so in favor of coming to UMN. But wouldn’t you know it, 6 years later, here I was – right in the middle of maned-wolf country! Granted, *I* still haven’t seen a maned wolf here, as is usually the case. The balloon pilots, with their birds-eye view, always see the most spectacular things. We on the ground just hear about them.

But I’ve got nearly two more weeks here…and I’m on a mission to find me a maned wolf!

 

Quick update

Just a quick update on a room change for the seminar — it will be in Borlaug 365 at 1pm, July 11. The official announcement is below!

 

PhD Defense Seminar in the

Ecology, Evolution, & Behavior Graduate Program

Presented by

Alexandra Swanson

Advised by: Dr. Craig Packer

1:00 pm, Friday, July 11

365 Borlaug Hall

“Living with lions: spatiotemporal mechanisms of intraguild predator coexistence”

 

Top predators often suppress their smaller guild members and this can have profound consequences that cascade throughout the larger community. Suppression is mediated primarily through interference competition: direct aggressive interactions and behavioral avoidance by mesopredators to minimize the risk of aggression. These avoidance responses can be costly, especially when they result in large-scale displacement that reduces access of the subordinate species to resources. My dissertation explores the role of behavioral avoidance in driving intraguild predator dynamics, specifically hypothesizing that large-scale displacement drives mesopredator suppression, but that fine-scale avoidance strategies may promote coexistence by minimizing risk without costly large-scale displacement.  Specifically, I examine how African lions affect spotted hyenas, cheetahs, and African wild dogs in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.  I first evaluate evidence for mesopredator suppression and large-scale displacement using long-term historical data. I then evaluate patterns of avoidance at fine spatiotemporal scales using novel camera-trapping methods and citizen science. Together, these studies identify large-scale displacement as a key driver of mesopredator suppression and fine-scale avoidance as a key mechanism for mesopredator persistence.

 

 

And the countdown begins

This Friday, July 11, I’ll be defending my dissertation. A little over a week ago, I hit the “send” button that submitted my dissertation to my committee members. At 124 pages, it falls smack-dab in the middle of most EEB (Ecology, Evolution & Behavior) dissertations (as my friend Marcus describes in this cool (albeit nerdy) post here). The defense itself consists of an hour-long presentation (open to the public – so karibu Borlaug 365*, July 11, 1pm) followed by 2 hours of medieval torture – whoops, I mean questioning – by my committee.

The last few days and weeks have been hectic. Since submitting my dissertation,  I’ve been focused exclusively on preparing this seminar. An hour is a long time — but still somehow not long enough to talk about everything I’ve been doing for the past 6 years. Hell, I could talk for an hour about Snapshot Serengeti alone! And that’s just a part of my broader dissertation!

I’m excited and nervous and eager to be done with it all at the same time. Summer defenses are always a bit sad, as so many students and faculty are away in the field. Although I’m excited to finish my dissertation, I’m by no means done with Snapshot Serengeti. Not only am I preparing several Snapshot papers for publication, but…drumroll…I’ll also be joining the Zooniverse team in Oxford in the fall. As you probably know, Zooniverse received a Google Global Impact Award to build a generalizable tool so that science teams can build their own citizen science websites. I’ll be joining them on this adventure as their “resident ecologist” — to help make sure that such a tool makes sense for science teams asking questions about the natural world.

So! Exciting times. And hectic times. I will try to keep posting over the next few weeks as I defend (*fingers crossed*), then head to Brazil to crew for my partner in the World Hot-Air Balloon Championships, then pack up the last six years of my life and head across the Atlantic. Lots to come — just have to survive July 11 first…Wish me luck!

 

* location has changed to Borlaug 365, not 335!

 

Almost there…

I’ve been a bit remiss in blog posts lately.  I’ve just recovered  from a whirlwind trip through South Africa (so much exciting data!!!),  a visit to the Zooniverse team in Oxford, and, not least, my 31st birthday — and now I am rapidly approaching the end of my dissertation, and it is pretty much the only thing on my mind. I’ve already got a date – July 11th – on which I’ll give an hour long public presentation (anyone local is welcome to come) followed by 2 hours of inquisition by my committee members behind closed doors.  But to make it there, I first need to hand in my dissertation and have them all agree that I’m ready to defend. I need to hand it in by Friday, and still have a *lot* of work to do!

So, I may have posted this before, but figured it was a good time to (re) share this clip of baby elephants learning to use their trunks. They remind me a little bit of me trying to learn how to do science…

 

Detour to the Spice Islands

Hey all! Sorry for the delays in posting – I’ve been doing a bit of traveling recently, in the quest to obtain all my permits. Last week, I took the bus (a 12 hour ride each way – no mean feat) from Arusha, the city where we are in northern Tanzania, down to Dar es Salaam, a large city on the coast. Tanzania’s largest city, in fact, and it certainly contains all of the qualities of city living that I find distressing. It’s an overwhelming, crowded, busy, noisy place, not anywhere I’d care to visit again any time soon. The upside to this business trip, however, was that when I finished up dealing with my paperwork on Friday afternoon, I hoped on a ferry and took a ride out to Zanzibar, the “Spice Island”.

P1130397

 

The Zanzibar archipelago is located about 3 hours boat-ride off the coast. Persian traders used Zanzibar as a base for voyages between the Middle East, India, and Africa, and the island later became a center for the Arab slave trade. There’s even a small rock in the archipelago which holds the remains of a prison built for rebellious slaves (named, appropriately if not unimaginatively, “Prison Island”). I spent the weekend in the main island in the city of Stone Town. The city is old, its architecture rife with Arabic influences – towering buildings and narrow alleyways, ornate doors and carefully constructed windows.

P1130376 P1130379 P1130386

Stone Town claims to be the only function ancient town in East Africa. I was just happy to return to an island and get some quality time out on the beach to refresh and de-stress. The major appeal of Zanzibar for me was what was going on under the waves – I took the first opportunity I could to hop on a boat, don some SCUBA gear, and check out the island’s beautiful coral reefs.

DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO

Cephalophods, sting-rays, beautiful shimmering leaf fishes, and pulsing corals. We even got to check out the wreck of a ship that sank over 60 years ago! It was hard enough to drag myself back onto dry land, let alone voluntarily get back in the bus for another monumental drive home. My business was completed successfully, though, so knock on wood I should be seeing the Serengeti soon…

The no armed monkey

I am being consumed by envy. Ali is in South Africa and Meredith is in Tanzania. I am stuck in front of my computer working away on assignments with the prospect of an exam looming fast, in fact days away. I want to be finished with my degree and get back out there where the wild things are.
So to distract myself I have been reminiscing about my life in the African bush, it’s been a good exercise as it has reminded me what all the studying is for. Whilst we are waiting for Ali and Meredith’s blogs I thought I would share with you the story of the no armed monkey….

This is actually a true story involving a troop of vervet monkeys whose territory included my house. I would see them at least once a day as they moved from the tall sycamore fig trees along the river, their nightly refuge spot, into the bush to feed. Vervets are fascinating to watch, they are always up to something and that often involved trying to get into my house to steel fruit. I remember one cold winter morning watching a heavily pregnant female on the stoop reclining with her back propped up on a chair leg, her arms and legs spread out warming her swollen belly in the sun. She looked so at home there I thought I may just get to witness a birth, no such luck. So when the troop moved through I would always stop and watch.
It was on one such vervet induced pause that I noticed one sub adult monkey run across the garden on its back legs, almost lemur like. Grabbing the binoculars I got a better look only to discover it was missing both its arms. There didn’t appear to be any sign of trauma nor scarring. The next thing I knew it had run, on its back legs, straight up a smallish tree through its branches and leaped up on to the thatched roof of my house. My eyes could not believe what they had just clearly seen. Obviously having no arms was no impediment for this little monkey.
On subsequent occasions I watched various other members of the group help the no armed monkey by giving it food or just simply waiting for it to catch up. It was able to use its feet to feed itself quite effectively and seemed to get on just fine. My feeling was that it was born this way, I just can’t think of a scenario where it would lose both arms in an accident and recover enough with no scarring. Whatever the truth of the matter, this little monkey was an inspiration.

Photo courtesy of Tammy Keizer

Photo courtesy of Tammy Keizer

Nyala are way prettier than impala

I’m in South Africa, getting a feel for the ongoing Panthera camera trapping surveys, collating data, falling madly in love with the country and South African bush, and scheming for how I need to find a way to come back.

Things are a bit of a whirlwind, but so far I am amazed and excited about the amount of monitoring that many of the small private and state-run reserves have been doing. There is an extraordinary amount of information that has been collected over the last decade on how all of the top predators move and live across these parks. There are parks with and without lions. Parks with and without hyenas. With and without wild dogs. Some parks are big and some are small. Some are very thickly treed, others are somewhat open. (Note that one thing I discovered very quickly is that pretty much all South African habitat, even the grassland, would equate to “woodland” in the Serengeti. So…”open” is a relative term.)

The amount of data here is enough to get any science nerd’s heart a flutter. But I am trying to focus on what is out the window instead of what’s on the computer for now. I’ve only a few days in South Africa, and endless time to analyze the data.

In the meanwhile, I thought I’d share one of my new favorite animals: the nyala.

These cousins to the waterbuck we capture in camera on Serengeti, and you can see it a bit in their pretty faces. But these animals are far more stunning than anything I’ve ever seen in Serengeti. The females are small and sport bright white stripes on their red fur, and the males have these  incredible “manes” that run down the undersides of their necks and to their bellies. They are pretty awesome. As is everything I’ve experienced in South Africa so far. Yep, definitely need to find a way back!

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