It’s advent, and that means it’s time for the Zooniverse Advent Calendar. Last year Snapshot Serengeti itself was hiding behind one the doors of the calendar – that means we’re nearly a year old! Today we appear on the 2013 calendar with this post, and the meta-zebra. It’s a thank you to everyone that’s been supporting us for the last year: a zebra made from zebra. Naturally.
This poster was created using a pool of more than 16,000 zebra identified by the Snapshot Serengeti community. We then take a nice, simple capture of a Zebra and use a wonderful piece of software (called Andreamosaic) to generate this poster for you all. It is extremely high resolution (and 70 MB big!) so if you want to, you can print it out to be several feet across! Below is the zebra’s nose.
It’s just a small token of our thanks for a great year. In 2014 we’ll be back with season 7. We also plan to have more fun to share before December is over. Stay tuned!
[Download the full poster here - warning this file is 70 MB big]
By now, you have probably heard of this silly (but hilarious) video that’s been making the rounds of the interwebs lately:
It’s pretty catchy, not just because it’s ridiculous, but because it’s a pretty good question. I mean, how many of you out there have actually ever heard a fox?
The sounds of the bush are one of the many, many things I miss being back here in civilization. From my slightly sketchy corner of Saint Paul, I hear fire crackers and unmuffled engines roaring. Occasionally I get chattered at by an angry squirrel in the back yard. But that’s about it. Nothing like the otherworldly chorus of the Serengeti savanna that Lucy so beautifully described.
The sounds really are incredible and often unbelievable, and I thought I’d share some of them with you. I couldn’t actually figure out how to upload audio files, so I scoured Youtube for the best audio clips I could find and embedded them as videos here.
Zebras: Nothing like horses, these stripy equids sound something like a braying donkey crossed with a barking dog.
Wildebeest: I believe that somewhere in the annals of Zooniverse blogs, there is an audio or video clip of me doing a wildebeest impression. This is better.
Hyenas: Despite being hell-bent on devouring all of my camera traps, these guys are pretty cool. They have a rather large repertoire of very…unusual…vocalizations that are used to communicate in a number of situations. The whoop, which you hear at 0:05 and 0:55, is a long-distance call often used to rally scattered clan members. The laugh at 2:33 is a sign of nervousness or submission. Similar to human voices, hyena vocalizations are individually recognizable to clan-mates. To learn more about hyena vocalizations, check out this blog by hyena expert and director of Masai Mara’s long-term hyena project, Kay Holekamp.
Lions: And finally, for the best, non-hollywood lion roar, scroll about halfway down through our lion research center’s page. This is what they really sound like.
I’ll take any of these noises over the sounds of the city any day.
To bring myself up to speed with the fundamentals of lion research in the Serengeti, I have spent the last week or so reading through the classic work The Serengeti Lion: A Study of Predator-Prey Relations, by the reputable George B. Schaller. For a collection of field notes, the book it quite a page-turner. The work covers everything remotely relating to lion biology, from social systems to predation patterns, and manages to capture both the drama of the dynamic Serengeti system and the dusty, hot, sweaty reality of watching big cats sleep for 18 hours a day.
Although the focus of the book is the life of lions, the life of George B. Schaller himself turns out to be just as intriguing. Digging a little into his background, I discovered that Schaller, dubbed the “Megafauna Man” by National Geographic, has undertaken a 50-year career in field biology studying some of the most iconic systems in the world.
Schaller had moved to the Serengeti with his wife and two sons for two years in 1966 to uncover the intricacies of the lives of big cats and their prey. This, however, was not the start of his field career. Back in 1959, when he was a mere 26 years old, Schaller packed up and headed off to Central Africa to study the mountain gorilla. For two years, amidst dodging poachers and eluding Watusi invaders, he uncovered facts about these great apes which helped to dispel common notions about their brutishness and revealed them to be gentle and intelligent animals. His work paved the way for other naturalists, including the well-known Dian Fossey, and led to the creation of Virunga National Park.
In the ‘70s, Schaller worked in both South Asia and South America, studying large mammals including the blue sheep and snow leopards of Nepal and the jaguars, capybaras, and caimans of Brazil. The American novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen accompanied Schaller to Nepal and wrote a travelogue on their exploits (The Snow Leopard) that went on to win the 1979 National Book Award. Matthiessen describes Schaller as “one of the finest field biologists of our time. He pioneered the practice of turning regions of field research into wildlife parks and preserves,” a epithet that held true yet again when five years later, the Nepalese government used Schaller’s research to form Shey-Phoksundo National Park.
Following these adventures, Schaller and his wife were given the distinction of being the first westerners invited by China to enter the remote southwest Asian wilderness and research the Giant Panda in its native habitat. As part of this work, Schaller focused on understanding threats to the diminishing panda population and discovered that the primary culprits in their demise were poaching and logging. In his book, The Last Panda, Schaller writes “The panda has no history, only a past. It has come to us in a fragile moment from another time, its obscure life illuminated through the years we tracked it in the forests.” Despite this foreboding prophesy, since Schaller’s work on panda biology, the number of panda in the wild has increased by 45%.
In the 1990s, Schaller worked in Laos, Vietnam, and Tibet studying antelope and in the process discovering and rediscovering several species of mammals including a bovine, a pig, and a type of deer. More recently, he has been collaborating with agencies in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and China to develop a 20,000-square mile “Peace Park” for the protection of the world’s largest wild sheep species, the Marco Polo sheep.
Over the span of his career, Schaller has made profound contributions to our knowledge about large mammals, both their biology and ecology, and has greatly furthered species conservation in the creation of over 20 parks and preserves throughout the globe. I can highly recommend his writings on the Serengeti Lion, and if you want to delve further into his life and career, his other authored books (there are over 30) include The Year of the Gorilla, The Last Panda, Tibet Wild, and A Naturalist and Other Beasts.
##### Today’s blog is a guest post from our own Lucy Hughes. ####
We all love the cats don’t we, the majestic lions, the graceful cheetahs and the elusive leopards. There is something about getting one of these cats to ID on Snapshot Serengeti that makes you feel you hit the jackpot. Then there are the elephants, buffalo and giraffe ‘the big guys’. Lions for instance always get the most ‘likes’ on our facebook page. Let’s not even talk about wildlife documentaries; they always manage to star ‘the big guys’, the crowd pleasers, elephants, tigers, lions, whales.
So what about ‘the little guys’? When was the last time you saw a documentary on aardvark or civets?
It seems that the documentary makers don’t think we want to see a whole hour on these little guys. Most people know that lions live in prides and that when a new comer ousts the dominant male he will kill any young cubs. They also know that thousands of wildebeest migrate through the Serengeti, preyed upon by lions, hyena and crocodiles. Who knows how many offspring aardvark have at one time? Or who knows how far a honey badger will walk in one nights foraging.
They are fascinating to say the least these smaller mammals and they are totally deserving of their own starring roles in documentaries and the media. Luckily for us they do appear regularly on Snapshot Serengeti’s camera-traps. Next time you get a porcupine, serval or aardvark stop and think what you know about them.
For me one of the most fascinating small mammals is the sociable mongoose. On the camera-traps they are usually banded mongoose or dwarf mongoose. These guys bustle around all day risking ground based and winged predators. They have complex social lives that find them forever challenging each other of reaffirming bonds. To put it simply they are busy animals.
I once had the pleasure of a very close encounter with a group of wild dwarf mongoose. One super hot day I was ambling in the bush checking out camera trap spots, following game tracks, looking for likely spots when I came across a beautiful shaded clearing, not very big, a few meters in diameter. I decided to sit awhile and cool down so propping my back against a boulder and stretching my legs out I sat quietly listening to the sounds of the African bush. A sudden black flash and a drongo had flown into the opposite side of my refuge. Now these birds are adept at following mammals and catching any insects scared up by them so I was curious to see if anything else would arrive. Sure enough a rustle in the dry grass and here popped a dwarf mongoose into the clearing. The diminutive creature was followed rather noisily by about 10 or so more of its group. They fanned out each their own direction and immediately started searching for anything edible. I kept very still and tried not to breathe too much until one of the younger mongooses was sniffing my boot. A second scrambled right over my leg and I was entranced. Then the wind must have changed or an adult must have realised the strange rock might just be alive because a squeal was uttered and the whole group scarpered in one direction their drongo with them. The whole episode lasted about 6 or 7 minutes but it has endeared me to these ‘little guys’ for ever more.
In the winter months (northern hemisphere winter, that is), we catch white storks on camera. They’re taking their winter vacation in the Serengeti — and across eastern and southern Africa.
White storks are carnivorous, eating insects, worms, reptiles, and small mammals. A flock of them like this makes me wonder about the diversity of small critters that they eat that we don’t catch on camera. Because they eat small animals, they can sometimes be seen near fires, ready to gobble up those creatures trying to escape flames and smoke.
The white stork has a favorable reputation with people in both Africa and in Europe, because it feeds on crop pests. In the spring, storks leave their wintering grounds and head north to Europe to breed. They build large nests out of sticks and are happy to do so on buildings and other structures with wide, unencumbered supports. And because they are considered useful — and sometime good luck — people allow them to build their nests on buildings. These nests are then frequently re-used year after year.
Several years ago I went to Poland to find my grandmother’s childhood home. This was made a bit challenging because when my grandmother was a child, the area was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the names of everything — towns, streets — were in German. These days, of course, all the names are in Polish. After finding a list of place name translations, I set out to see if I could locate some buildings my grandmother described in her memoirs in a small town in the countryside outside of what is now Wrocław and was then Breslau. One of these was “Grandfather’s [my great-great-grandfather's] water mill with its stork nest on the roof.” Sure enough, I found a large old building in the middle of town right by the stream. It no longer sported a water wheel, but there on the roof: a stork’s nest, complete with stork.
A few weeks ago, Snapshot Serengeti volunteers spotted a Pangolin in Season 6. This is the best pangolin shot we’ve ever seen in this project.
Pangolins are rare and nocturnal, so you don’t see them often out in the field. The pangolin species we have in the Serengeti is called the ground pangolin (Manis temmincki), and it ranges from East Africa though much of Southern Africa.
I once went to Kruger National Park in South Africa for a conference and went on a guided tour in my free time; the tour leader asked what we wanted to see, and I shouted out “pangolin!” The tour leader gave me a withering look and we then went out to see the elephants and giraffes and buffalo that the other tourists were eager to see. I really did want to see a pangolin, though. I’ve never seen one in real life.
Pangolins have scales all along their back and curl up into balls like pillbugs when they feel threatened. They hang out in burrows that they either dig themselves or appropriate from other animals. And they have super long tongues that they use to get to ants and termites, their primary food. Pangolins have one baby at a time, and young pangolins travel by clinging to the base of their mother’s tail.
Pangolins don’t have any close living relatives. In fact, they have an order all to themselves (Pholidota). Because of how they look, scientists used to think they were most closely related to anteaters and armadillos. But now with genetic tools they’ve discovered that pangolins are more closely related to the order Carnivora, which includes all cats and dogs. It’s a bit strange to think that pangolins, which are sometimes called “scaly anteaters” have more in common genetically with lions than with actual anteaters, but that’s what the science tells us.
Many thanks to all of you who marked the new pangolin image in the Talk forum. That lets us make sure it gets classified correctly. ‘Pangolin’ was just one of those rare animals that didn’t make it onto the list of animals you can choose from, so our algorithm will classify it as something else, which we will fix by hand.
Just wanted to brighten your morning with a pretty unbelievable video that has nothing to with the Serengeti. Frogs freeze. That’s right. They don’t hibernate, they freeze. I couldn’t embed this video from NOVA’s Science Now site, but just click here to watch!
I hope that rocks your morning as much as it rocked mine.
The African civet Civettictis civetta is the sole terrestrial civet found in Africa, the rest being found in Indian subcontinent. It is a heavy set cat-like animal and is still referred to as a civet-cat by some though it is not a member of the felids. Civets have a white body with black blotchy spots. They have a black face mask and black legs; the tail appears ringed with a thick black line running down the top. They have an erectile dorsal crest which they raise when alarmed or in aggression. This can be seen on a few of our camera-trap images.
The African civet is most famous for its musk that is used in the perfume trade. Don’t get the wrong impression, it smells terrible, but helps fix scent. Its use has mostly been replaced with synthetic fixers these days which is good news for civets. Civet farms are not regulated and animals are usually kept in small cages from which they are ‘milked’ daily. The real use of their perineal gland which is situated near the anus is to paste an object such as a tree to act as territorial sign post.
African civets are omnivorous, eating a wide range of vertebrate and invertebrate prey as well as taking advantage of fallen fruit. They are clumsy killers and often employ a bite and retreat or bite and throw tactic, where prey is bitten and thrown before quickly running away. The prey is hopefully immobilised so the civet can return to inflict the killing bite. Scent and sound are the predominant senses used by civets. They are classified as Least Concern on the IUNC Red List (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
The Genet family has 15 subspecies in Africa and these are all still hotly debated. The Serengeti is home to at least two of these, the Common Genet Genetta genetta and the Rusty Spotted or Central African Large Spotted Genet Genetta maculate. It is very hard to tell them apart, especially in a fleeting camera-trap picture but the Common Genet usually has a white tipped tail and the Rusty Spotted Genet has a black tipped tail.
They are small agile mammals that resemble a cat with short legs. Their silvery grey coat is marked with black spots in the Common Genet and black to brown spots in the Rusty Spotted Genet. They have dark marks either side of the muzzle below the eyes giving them a slightly racoon-like look. The tail which is banded is almost as long as the body and can appear quite bushy when alarmed.
The Genets are mainly carnivorous and they will eat mammals, birds, insects and reptiles. They hunt in trees and on the ground and are extremely dextrous. They spend their days in holes in trees, thick bushes, rocky crevices and sometimes in ground holes. Like civets they also have a perineal gland that they use for scent marking. To do this they will stand on their forefeet in a handstand posture and rub the raised gland on a tree or bush. Both Common Genet and Rusty Spotted Genet are classed as Least Concern on the IUNC Red List.
Most of you have probably seen this picture:
As well as the ones after it:
This series of photos was taken at site H11 along the Loyangalani river and remains, to me, one of the most amazing accomplishments of our camera trap survey to date.
First, seeing a kill is rare. In the 47 years that the Lion Project has been watching Serengeti’s lions, we’ve only seen lions with about 4,000 carcasses; of those, we’ve only actually seen them in the act of killing 1,100 animals. That might sound like a lot, but with one or two people on the ground, almost every day of the year, racking up nearly 50,000 sightings, that’s not that often.
I don’t love this series simply because this random, stationary, complacently-stuck-to-a-tree camera trap caught this rather rare event – but because it goes on to document the story that follows: A single lioness takes down a zebra much bigger than herself. Within minutes, her sister joins her (free meal!). Note how big their bellies already are though, when they begin to eat. These aren’t particularly hungry lions to begin with. About 45 minutes later, they are staring out of view of the camera, and then comes a group of hyenas. The carcass goes back and forth between them throughout the night, with a jackal darting in to sneak a nibble.
Food stealing, or kleptoparasitism, is a major part of life for Serengeti carnivores. Contrary to long-standing popular belief (reinforced by the Lion King), hyenas are not skulking scavengers living only off others’ leftovers. Hyenas are quite adept predators and scavenge only about 40% of their diet; lions scavenge at least 30% of theirs. And, in fact, lions steal a lot more food from hyenas than is apparent at first glance. More often than not, when we see hyenas lurking anxiously around a pride of lions demolishing a carcass, it’s because hyenas made the kill, and lions stole it away. Research from Kenya suggests lions might actually suppress hyena populations simply by stealing their food.
On the flip side, work from Botswana suggests that hyenas are able to steal food from lions if and only if hyenas outnumber lions by at least 4 to one, and there are no adult male lions present. (Remember, males are half again as big as females: hyenas don’t stand a chance.) But observations that Craig and a former graduate student made from the Ngorongoro Crater further revealed that even when lions do give up a kill, they are so full they can barely move – it’s simply not worth the effort to fend off hyenas any more.
So, kleptoparasitism is a part of life if you are a Serengeti carnivore, but it’s not always as simple as the movies make it out to be. It’s a pretty cool mechanism that might be driving predator dynamics though – I just wish it weren’t so hard to test!!
### Today we’ve got a guest post by our very own Daniel Rosengren, lion tracker (& photographer) extraordinaire. ###
It started with some mysterious footprints around the Loliondo Kopjes. There were a lot of fresh paw marks in the mud following the road. I could tell it was a big pride but the only big pride with a territory nearby was the Young Transects. But I could not hear their collar. Neither could I hear any of our other prides. I drove around for a while looking for lions, especially on the rocks and under trees. I didn’t find any and guessed it could have been the Young Transect lions anyway, only without the collared female.
A couple of weeks later I was headed out east when I soon caught eye on a big group of lions. As I drove closer I realized they weren’t any lions I knew. I tried to get photos of all of them but it wasn’t easy knowing who you’d already got in a group of 17 lions. Luckily they all started walking along the track. All I had to do was park ahead of them and take photos as they passed one by one. Once I had photos of all their left sides I went home to try to figure out who they were.
I concentrated on the older females as the youngster probably never had been seen before by the Lion Project. After a while I found a couple of matches. It was TR86 and TSF from the Transect Steady pride, not seen since December 2009, almost three and a half years earlier. But the last time they were seen regularly in our study area was in 2008.
Now I contacted TANAPA and the vets to organize a collaring of one of the females. They were coming. I drove back to the place where I’d seen the lions and hoped they hadn’t walked too far. I found them in the shade of a tree. Then a long wait started for the vets to organize themselves and drive all the way from Fort Ikoma. Once they came, the collaring went smoothly, the rest of the pride watching from a distance.
About a week later I found the pride just outside the northern edge of our study area along the Pipeline track. Two more old females known since before had joined them, TR93 and TR106. Then they disappeared. So two weeks later I decided to search for them and drove along the Pipeline track north. But instead of driving on the actual track, which in many places was disappearing because of little use, I drove parallel to it, hitting all hilltops to be able to pick up the radio signal from a greater distance. The drive was terrible as the hills in the area are specked with large rocks and I had to drive dead slow. I held on the the steering wheel as little as possible. Having no power steering means that every time I hit a rock I risk breaking thumbs or worse.
I picked up the signal after a while but I still had to pass several hills before finally finding them, right by the track at a river confluence. That was quite far north of our study area and too far to go and see them on a weekly basis. The future will have to show where they finally settle.