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.
##### 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.
## Today’s guest post is from our moderator and regular contributor Lucy Hughes. ##
What does silence mean to you? Maybe it’s that moment at the end of the day when the telephones stop ringing and the office hubbub finally stops and you can hear yourself think. Maybe sitting in your garden listening to the insects and aeroplanes pass overhead. Or maybe it’s that first 5 minutes of waking before the baby starts howling. Whatever it means to you the point is silence isn’t really silent. Something is always making a sound even if it’s a leaf rustling in the wind or a cricket singing.
In the African bush night time silence is deafening. Just before sunset there is a rush of activity. The day shift starts looking for a place to spend the night whilst frantically searching out that last mouthful of food. Young banded mongoose are scolded into their burrows by older siblings. Antelope take a drink before heading to thicker cover. Francolins are calling out their staccato calls whilst sandgrouse flock to drink. As the sun sets and darkness looms everything quietens down, the last to make a noise are the guinea fowl who wait till it is just dark to, one by one, barrel up to adorn their favourite roosting trees like giant Christmas baubles. They finally settle down, and the nearby baboons stop squabbling and there is a moment’s peace before the night shift takes over.
The Scops owl is first with its ‘poop poop poop’ call sounding almost like an insect. Then the night-jars join in. A distant rasping bark and the jackal are off calling ownership of their territory. They stop suddenly and a moment later there it is, the slow wo-oop! Woo-ooop! and the hyena clan are declaring they are up for business.
There has been no respite to the constant noise of the African bush during this transition between day and night; a seamless mix between the two sound tracks. As the evening wears on and the night shift are out hunting in earnest it gets quieter. If you are lucky enough to experience this it is unforgettable. The silence is thick, it hurts your ears and you want to shake your head to clear it. You are straining to hear anything out there in the blackness and your senses have you on high alert, never mind that you are in a vehicle your primal instinct knows this is Africa and beasts roam that want to eat you.
The only sound is a cacophony of insects and it is this that gets in your head, it is a relief when a spotted eagle owl calls breaking the pitch and giving you perspective again. Staring into the blackness you see a shape move , you can’t make out what it is, then comes a noise that goes right through you, a guttural, low sawing sound, a leopard is calling broadcasting its presence using the ground as a sounding board. He walks out in front of you, pauses for a moment, then strides off purposefully into the night.
The silence of the African night is palpable. You could slice it with a knife. It is so full of promises of wonderful animal encounters that I never want to sleep. It’s my favourite sound of silence; what’s yours?
## I’m currently on a mini-holiday in the Minnesota wilderness (Boundary Waters Canoe Area). As I’ve lately been missing long mornings on the porch watching Serengeti wildlife, and Margaret wrote a recent post on one of the all-time most-watchable animals out there, I thought I’d share a story of a late-night elephant encounter from my first year in the field. I was in the car with Candida, a Lion Project Field assistant, and Philipp Henschel, a lion researcher for Panthera who has spent years working in west Africa, and the man who taught me how to camera trap, when we came across this…#
As we hurtled along the gutted road, we came face to face with a herd of elephants paying their respects to a fallen buffalo. At first, in the murk of night, we thought they huddled around one of their own, and concerned silence fell upon us. Ellies, for as aggressive as they can sometimes be, have earned our admiration and careful respect. They seem to me intelligent and emotional creatures; where they are not persecuted, they tolerate the roar of our passing engine with a casual glance. But they are supposedly nearsighted to the point of legal blindness*. In heavily hunted areas we are sometimes charged by a protective female, but as we hold our breaths and brace for impact, they stop their charge short and listen…but give up and turn away. If we remain downwind in silence we are invisible…or so we hope.
The elephants tonight are agitated as they mill around the buffalo. Philipp tells us that ellies often investigate death in the forests where he’s worked. In an eerie display of some sort of cognizance, they seem to recognize that something is not right and come to look at fallen creatures. When they come across the bones of one of their own, he says, they pick them up and carry them away. It is sad and scary and moving and beyond my comprehension, what must be going on in the heads of these big, gray, lumbering beasts.
The two tour vehicles that are blocking the watering hole eventually pull away, and the ellies step forward to drink. They cluster close, pressing together side by side. Hesitant lions slowly creep back to reclaim their half-eaten kill, and the matriarch whirls around, her ears flaring, watching the lions in a silent stand-off. The air is still. It is thick with tension and heavy with the severity of the moment. One ill-timed thud against the car window or a frightened squeal from any of us, and we could incited a rampage. Silence is imperative and we hold our breaths as the ellies file past within inches of our landrover.We can almost feel their fear and my heart twists as I wonder what it must be like to stumble blindly through a blurry world, sensing death and its bearers all around you lurking in the hazy shadows and around every corner. As they disappear into the acacias, we hear a long, lumpy-sounding elephant fart and giggle nervously. We can breathe again.
We drive closer to the buffalo carcass and watch the lions return. In the faint starlight, we see that an adult female has already resumed her demolition; her whole head disappears inside the opened belly to rip solid tracts of muscle from the ribcage. We fumble for our headlamps and cameras; I look around optimitistically for an onslaught of hyenas. I have yet to see them challenge a lion kill, and begin to question the feasibility of my research plans. The subadult males pad around our car, their massive paws falling silently in the sandy soil. They are full, and are now studying us. Our windows are open, as always, and we glance around with slight unease – where did the two subadult males go? Suddenly we hear a loud chomp from the back of our vehicle. Fearing that they’ve gone of one of our tires, and hardly in any position to fix a flat, we frantically turn the car ignition and pull a few meters forward. In the sideview mirror, we see a lion trot into the darkness with our plastic tire cover dangling from his teeth. Candida’s jaw drops. We are not quite sure what inspired them to steal such an inedible adornment, but it is late and we have company coming that night. So we chalk the loss up to a casualty of the field…and as we drive home along the corrugated dirt road, we remind ourselves that at least we are better off than the buffalo.
*Elephants do have pretty bad vision, but it’s not as bad as I believed it was on this ominous night at the buffalo kill.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s really nice to have running water, internet, and my pick of fresh vegetables from the weekend farmer’s market. But sometimes I miss the Serengeti. Watching from my window in Minnesota, I’m lucky if I see a squirrel. And let’s face it — squirrels are only so exciting, for so long.
One of my favorite ways to see the Serengeti was from the unbeatable vantage point of a hot air balloon. Yes, that’s right. We might not have an indoor toilet or fresh food, but we have hot air balloons. Okay, that’s not entirely correct: Serengeti Balloon Safaris has hot air balloons that fly tourists over the heart of the park. In fact, you’ve probably seen them floating past in the camera trap photos:
SBS has been flying balloons in Serengeti since the 1980’s, and has always helped us researchers out whenever they could, from letting us drag our hand-held tracking equipment up for flight to listen for lost lion prides, to letting us tinker with our Landrovers in their garage. In fact, they sponsored a lion cub during one of our fundraising campaigns a few years back – and now there’s a cub named “Balloo” living in the Mukoma Gypsies pride in the heart of Serengeti.
I went up for my first flight in 2010. George Lohay, Stan’s predecessor on the project, and I had to wake up at 4 am to make it to the launch field on time. That really is as terrible as it sounds, however, that morning it saved us from an invasion by the relentless carnivorous safari ants (siafu). Well, to be more exact, we were able to flee the house before the ants had invaded our beds, meaning we escaped with minimal damage. And by the time we returned that afternoon, the ants had already moved on.
I’ve been thinking about balloons lately because one of SBS’s pilots and a dear friend of the Serengeti Lion Project & Snapshot Serengeti, Jason Adams, is currently preparing to defend his title in Canada’s upcoming National Hot Air Ballooning Championships. Everyone in Serengeti and on the Snapshot team will be rooting for him. Good luck Jay!
## Margaret and I are both recovering from a crazy week at the Ecological Society of America conference and the incredibly successful Save Snapshot Serengeti campaign, so we’re posting a fantastic story from our regular contributor and Snapshot moderator Lucy Hughes. Thank you all again for helping us to make Snapshot Serengeti so successful. ###
When you live in the African bush you imagine it will be full of close encounters with wildlife like lion, hyena and elephant. It’s true to say there is a fair number of these encounters but in reality it’s the small critters you encounter more frequently. Often these can be far more heart stopping. I am talking about snakes. What’s more, they don’t relegate themselves to the bush; they tend to congregate around your house.
My house was a thatch and stone affair that nestled in amongst rocks, very scenic but also perfect snake habitat. Snake encounters were an almost daily occurrence on the reserve and life with them took a bit of getting used to.
My first encounter just weeks after I moved in was right by the front door. Coming home one day I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and realised I had just walked past a snake sticking its head out of the rock wall. I went hot and cold as my ankle must have been inches away from it. Fumbling with the key I burst through the door and from the safety of its glass watched the now empty hole to see if the snake would reappear. Oh yes, it came out alright, a Mozambique spitting cobra. To cut a long story short Sid the Spitting cobra and I became friends. I didn’t disturb my door sentinel and he didn’t bite me. I regularly saw him peak out of the same hole. Learning to live with snakes is important in the bush. Killing any wildlife is frowned on in a reserve.
One night whilst doing the dishes idly gazing out the window the rock wall suddenly seemed to move. Once my brain readjusted to the image I realised a rock python was making its way out of the thatch and down to the ground on a night time foray. Now a 2 meter python in the roof is not a bad thing. For a start it keeps the tree squirrel population down and that in turn keeps the black mambas away (who love tree squirrel snacks). As long as it’s a small python you don’t worry about it finding its way into your bed at night, a black mamba on the other hand caused me quite a few sleepless nights after I saw it disappear into the thatch.
My shower was out doors and had a resident foam nest frog living on a shelf. One morning going for a shower I heard a terrible squealing. A spotted bush snake had my frog and was busy devouring it. It took over an hour to swallow my friend.
I once had a pair of orphaned baby tree squirrels (yes mum fell afoul of a Mamba) When they where big enough I would sit in the garden with them whilst they ran around exploring. The little female was quite brave and was scampering around on the rocks. Next thing I hear a piercing squeal and the little squirrel shot up into a low branch. I raced over and scooped her up and sat with her in my hand for about a minute whilst she breathed her last. A Puff adder sitting in a crevice had struck her.
But for all the horror stories snakes are fascinating things and it is a thrill to see them in action so close. I would rather they stayed out of my house though, the garden is close enough! When we learn to live with nature it offers us such rewards.
##### Today’s post is a continuation of last week’s adventure, written by Patrik Dousa. #####
When we left off the story from last week, all of us in the Serengeti team were out deep in the sour tern range of the Serengeti trying to free a land rover from thick mud. All we accomplished was securing the range rover even deeper in the mud. From 1/4 of the wheel being submerged to a half, with the bumper touching the ground. Good going. A beautiful sunset was going to occur in an hour or so and the last place to be at that point was in the middle of a hazardous plain with a large pride of lions waking up for their nighttime prowls.
The lions are still watching us from their mesas to the north and Ali is figuring out the next move. I thought it was a clear decision. Leave. Now. Have I described to you the fortitude and diligence of a lion researcher? A job that requires you to spend most of your time in the dry plains with the only the basic minimum requirements to sustain you doesn’t attract individuals who give up too easily. No, Ali and George see the sunken rover as a challenge that must be faced. We aren’t leaving, not without a fight.
Just then a tourist vehicle pulls up along a road about a half-mile from our area on the other side of the uncrossable mud plains. The guide is in the process taking them back home to one of the southern lodges and apparently decided to stop, having spied the magnificent example of male lion that was observing our vehicle. The new arrival attracted King Simba’s attention and the powerful elegant beast starts walking towards the tourists. I can see their excitement mount through my binoculars — this moment is going to be the highlight of their trip. George and Ali are laboring through shovelfuls of the thickest, reddest, peatiest mud you can imagine and only a short distance away, well-scrubbed observers are preparing themselves for the the apex of their Serengeti experience. Such is life.
I see a bold cub follow his master lion and play around his feet incurring his wrath for a moment. The king playfully swats back and raises his head to the heavens letting out an immense roar to the delight of the tourists. The greatest show on earth — with our little car-trouble side-show of going on right in the background. “Who are those crazy people back there?” they must have asked their guide. “Well, they’re professionals, so they must know what their doing.” the guide is certain to have responded.
The lion’s roar triggered a slow migration of the lionesses and their cubs from the low mesas to the area closer to the tourist vehicle where the male lion had settled. As the single file procession began, we felt a wave of relief since the pride was now headed away from our rover. A few more attempts to drag out the stuck vehicle failed. By now the sun is steadily growing larger and more rosy as it begins its decent. The sky eventually reaches the particular hue that Ali reads as our signal to leave.
We secured the vehicle and took all the valuables and began a slow retreat back thinking, “please don’t get stuck” on repeat until we got back on the main road. The pink sun blossomed into a deep red bloom that backlit the acacia tree line creating the beautiful silhouetted postcard image that the Serengeti is so well know for. The mood in the car was impervious to these romantic supplications. Exhausted and temporarily defeated, the crew made the long journey back toward the research house.
Being the visitor who expended the least amount of sweat that day, I suggested that we stop at the local canteen Seronera and that I’d treat everyone to a chicken and rice dinner and a Stoney Tangawizi (the extra spicy ginger ale that is everybody’s favorite drink in Tanzania). This turned out to be a very cost effective way to turn the sour mood sweet — just a few bucks per plate and brew to get everyone back to their happy place. Soon the team was back to the bantering with the locals and planning tomorrow’s adventure. That was my last night at the Serengeti, the next day I was back on the road to Arusha. Ali messaged me later and mentioned that they were able to round up a crew to go back and successfully drag out the rover the next day. This did not surprise me since I had well learned: you can’t keep a lion research team down for long.
Stuck. Surrounded by lions. Please come.
This is not a text message that you’d necessarily expect to get on your cell phone…unless you work as a lion researcher in the Serengeti like Ali does. Receiving this text in the early afternoon, she takes the news in stride as a necessary task that needed to be finished before dark. I on the other hand, as a visitor, am charged up and nonplussed with the drama of it all. George, one of the field research assistants on a lion tracking expedition, obviously needs help and pronto, so we are on our way out within a few minutes. In the wild Serengeti, a few minutes can separate success from tragedy — the research team has an exceptional awareness of this and also the discipline to do what it needs to be done in a methodical and prompt manner as Ali is demonstrating to me at this moment.
We track George and his land rover down just like we do lions. Each rover is outfitted with the same tracking unit that is on the collar of each radio-tracked lioness. So we chase the rover’s signature signal deep into the southern range, driving on the dirt roads as fast as we can safely afford. As the day draws towards a close, the animals become restless. Elephants trumpet in the distance. A serval — a beautiful African wild cat one doesn’t see everyday– trots across the road and disappears in the brush. Normally such a sighting would warrant an immediate stop, but not today.
Finally, we go as far as the roads can take us and we must venture in the unmarked grassy plains that are a minefield of axle-breaking holes and mud-traps. Driving off road is risky business in the daytime –as George was just reminded of — and completely a fool’s errand in the nighttime. Ali looks for the tell-tale signs in grass patch coloration that indicate a possible hole as she swerves deftly through the treacherous terrain in a labored crawl.
Finally on the horizon, we sight George and his rover axle deep in a seemingly stable area. The dry cracked surface, however, masks a vast mud hole created by the recent rains. This is the worst kind of environmental trap that even a seasoned veteran like George can fall prey too. With a lighthearted smile that belies any frustration, George explains how he tracked a pride of lions into this area and was surprised by the sudden drop into the mud. Luckily, our rover remains in the solid area just short of George’s rover. We check the area and see that the lions have moved off to a series of small mesas to the north. It’s safe enough to exit the vehicles as long as one of us keeps a 360 degree lookout.
Our cellphones at that point record no bars, so as Ali readies a tow line, she inquires how George was able to get a message out.
The calm exterior and wry banter of every lion researcher I’ve met is always the counterpoint to the fierce passion and iron discipline at their core. George is all smiles and laughs a bit as he recounts the sinking feeling he had when he saw that he had no bars on his cellphone and lions surrounding three sides of the vehicle. A thickly maned adult male lion stood watch right outside the drivers side as if he sensed George’s desperation.
A good scientist, when faced with a problem, puts together an experiment to test its boundaries. Perhaps the cell phone could be made to transmit somehow? As George raised his hand up and out of the vehicle he noticed to a single bar flicker on and off. This observation made him hatch a plan that he reflected on as he eyed the attentive dark-maned sentinel waiting outside along with the multiple groups of lionesses and cubs surrounding him.
The day was not going to get any longer so George, did exactly what he contemplated: he composed his terse message on his phone, climbed out the window onto the roof rack, and jumped up several times pressing the send key until the signal caught and the phone indicated the message was sent. Then he waited for the animals realize that he was still out of their range and relax back down to their lazy poses and before slipping back into the car to await rescue.
By the end of the story, the tow cable is fastened and mud traction ladders are in position under the rear wheels of the rover. Ali is ready to begin the first effort to pull the car. The gears lock in, the engine strains, the wheels spin, and…Georges car slips off of the ladders and deeper into the mud.
To be continued…
It’s hard to believe that I’m really and truly done with the Serengeti. It’s strange to not have a veranda to sit on, and watch the elles or giraffes munch on our trees; see the eyeshine of hyenas lurking in the shadows, hoping for a bite of our dinner. The only wildlife I’ve seen in the last week is squirrels. As entertaining as they are, it’s just not quite the same.
Nonetheless, it’s good to be “home.” It’s funny the things you take for granted when you live here. As an idea, I’ve made a list of just some of the things I’ve done in the past week that I hadn’t done in at least 5 months:
- gone to a farmer’s market
- run (oh the pain)
- gone to the kickboxing gym (even more pain)
- brushed my teeth with tap water (!)
- drunk tap water (The strangest thing to get used to)
- had a shower. With hot, running water.
- eaten fresh, water packed mozzarella (I really do love food)
- drunk an IPA (and beer. There’s no such thing as good beer in Serengeti.)
- bought clothes
- put clothes in a washing machine
- driven on the right side of the road (This is surprisingly hard to get used to.)
- put dishes in a dishwasher
- had hot water come out of the tap
- sat on a leather sofa
- eaten baby spinach
- eaten ice cream
- watched something on YouTube (I still can’t believe how fast the internet is!)
- driven a car with power steering
- used a microwave
- used a toaster
- listened to the radio
- checked my mail (that is NOT a pretty sight after 5 months…)
The list could go on, especially when it comes to food. But perhaps the most significant thing about this trip home is that, well, I’m here for good. Or as good as “for good” gets in grad school. I’m here, in Minnesota, until I finish my dissertation. What that means is that the next 12 months will be spent furiously analyzing the Snapshot Serengeti data to understand lion/hyena/cheetah/leopard/wild dog interactions, presenting at conferences, writing papers, searching for post-doc positions, and ultimately defending the last 5 (soon to be 6) years of research to a committee of UMN faculty members. It’s terrifying! Way scarier than spitting cobras, getting stuck in the mud, or having lions roaring right outside the car window…at least in my opinion.
After living here for the last three years, I’ve finally dragged my mother into the bush. At 69 years old, I don’t think she is thrilled about our seatless (squatting required) outhouse, or the fact that she can’t blow dry her hair, but she’s been a good sport about everything so far – from layers of dust that covered all of her luggage to the relentless rattle of my noisy Land Rover.
Arusha was harrowing (to be fair, it is hard to remember to look the “wrong way” when crossing the street)
but I can’t complain, as pretty much all we’ve done since she got here is eat AWESOME food. And you all know how I feel about food.
Grocery shopping was a little less fun than eating out…
But we broke the trip from Arusha to Serengeti into 2 days, and got to stay at the super fancy Serena Manyara along the way.
And we got a personal welcome into the park…
I’m just glad my mom is here, squat-choo or not. More pictures to come!