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]
Last week I posted an animated GIF of hourly carnivore sightings. To clarify, the map showed patterns of temporal activity across all days over the last 3 years — so the map at 9am shows sites where lions, leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas like to be in general at that time of day (not on any one specific day).
These maps here actually show where the carnivores are on consecutive days and months (the dates are printed across the top). [For whatever reason, the embedded .GIFs hate me; click on the map to open in a new tab and see the animation!]
Keep in mind that in the early days (June-Sept 2010) we didn’t have a whole lot of cameras on the ground, and that the cameras were taken down from Nov 2010-Feb 2011 (so that’s why those maps are empty).
The day-by-day map is pretty sparse, and in fact looks pretty random. The take-home message for this is that lions, hyenas, cheetahs, and leopards are all *around*, but the chances of them walking past a camera on any given day are kinda low. I’m still trying to find a pattern in the monthly distributions below.
So this is what I’ve been staring at in my turkey-induced post-Thanksgiving coma. Could be worse!
When I was working in South Africa two years ago, I had the chance to meet a very unusual subspecies of big cat. Following up on a lead from one of my Afrikaner coworkers, I managed to get an up-close and personal encounter with the “white lion”, a rare color mutant of the subspecies Panthera leo krugeri which is found only a few wildlife reserves and parks in southern Africa. This lions used to occur naturally throughout the Timbavati region until they were completely extirpated from the wild through selective trophy hunting. There are now estimated to be less than 300 of these individuals world-wide.
At a reserve where a pride of these lions is maintained, I helped a local veterinarian examine one of these magnificent animals who was suffering from a gastrointestinal aliment. As you can see, the lions are not pure white – they are not albino, but rather leucistic, and this coloration is the result of a recessive gene known as the Chincilla or color inhibitor gene. There is a mutation in an enzyme (tyrosinase) that results in decreased melanin production and inhibits its deposition along the hair shaft. Pigmentation is only found in the very tips. “Whiter” lions are the result of less pigment in the hair shaft, and even the manes and tail tips of the males are pale instead of the typical golden or black. They maintain pigment in their eyes, paws, and lips.
Interestingly enough, this pale coloration does not seem to inhibit their fitness in the wild. The White Lion Trust has been reintroducing prides of white lions back into their endemic habitat with much success. The goal of the organization has been to conserve this rare phenotype and increase the biodiversity in the Timbavati region. According to their reports, the white lions do not exhibit decreased hunting success and breed successful, producing several cubs over the last few years. Increasing genetic diversity in dwindling wild populations is important for the preservation of the subspecies as a whole. Good luck to the white lion! It was amazing to have a chance to interact with these magnificent animals.
Truth be told, I *have* been working on data analysis from the start. It’s actually one of my favorite parts of research — piecing together the story from all the different puzzle pieces that have been collected over the years.
But right now I am knee-deep in taking a closer look at the camera trap data. Since we have *so* many cameras taking pictures every day I want to look at where the animals are not just overall, but from day to day, hour to hour. I’m not 100% sure what analytical approaches are out there, but my first step is to simply visualize the data. What does it look like?
So I’ve started making animations within the statistical programming software R. Here’s one of my first ones (stay tuned over the holidays for more). Each frame represents a different hour on the 24 hour clock: 0 is midnight, 12 is noon, 23 is 11pm, etc. Each dot is sized proportionally to the number of captures of that species at that site at that time of day. The dots are set to be a little transparent so you can see when sites are hotspots for multiple species. [*note: if the .gif isn't animating for you in the blog, try clicking on it so it opens in a new tab.]
### Today’s blog is an excerpt from Craig Packer’s forthcoming book, “Lions in the Balance: Man-eaters, manes and men with guns”, which will be published by University of Chicago Press in the fall of 2014. ###
When the Italians attempted to conquer Abyssinia in 1887, they provisioned their troops with livestock brought from India, but some of the cattle were infected with the rinderpest virus. By 1897, the disease had spread south from the Ethiopian plateau to South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and across to West Africa, killing ninety percent of domestic livestock across the entire continent. Control programs were initiated throughout Africa; by the 1960s rinderpest was restricted to only a few areas, and Serengeti was the last major reservoir in Tanzania. A cattle-vaccination program around the Serengeti finally eliminated the disease from the wildlife inside the park in 1963. Liberated from rinderpest, the wildebeest, buffalo, warthog and other ruminant populations grew exponentially until they reached their current plateaus in 1979.
The lion population grew, too, but in a very different pattern.
The lions in the wooded habitat of our study area remained stable from 1966 until 1973 when the population suddenly leapt to a new equilibrium, then remained stable for another ten years before leaping again in 1983. The ruminant population had nearly tripled between 1966 and 1973; what held back the lions for so long? And what happened in 1973 and 1983?
Our lions endure an annual pattern of feast and famine; the migration brings the wildebeest and zebra within easy reach during the rainier months but sends the herds north to Kenya each dry season. In normal years, our study lions struggle to persist on warthog and buffalo, but these only sustain the adults – few cubs manage to survive.
The dry season of 1973 was the rainiest in decades, and the unseasonably green grasses attracted the wildebeest and zebra to our woodlands study area more or less continuously until the normal rains returned in November. Without the usual dry season famine, virtually every cub born in 1973 survived.
These surviving cohorts were large enough to form entirely new prides that could compete successfully against the prevailing social order and redraw the map of lion pride territories. Tough new gangs squeezed their way into the neighborhood, allowing the lion population to finally rise to a higher post-rinderpest plateau.
The recovering herds not only provided more meat on the hoof, but the wildebeest’s insatiable appetite for grass subsequently modified the habitat in the lions’ favor. An awful lot of grass was left uneaten when the wildebeest population was held low by rinderpest: grass fires roared through the park each year, burning the young acacia trees to stumps. But the expanding wildebeest population became the world’s largest lawn service, mowing the grass down to the nubs over thousands of square kilometers – creating fire breaks through much of the park. By the mid-1970s, less than a quarter of the Serengeti burned each year, and saplings were able to grow unhindered. Tree recruitment reached a peak in 1980 and persisted for ten years.
Lions need cover to hunt more successfully, and 1983 was the first year with favorable dry-season rainfall in this new improved world for hunting lions. Once again, the woodland prides recruited large numbers of young – large enough to spawn an expansion of new prides and redraw the map, with more groups packed more tightly than ever before.
The woodlands population crashed during a major disease outbreak in 1994 – lion numbers fell back to levels unseen since the late 1960s. But in 1999 – the first post-outbreak year with favorable dry season rainfall – the woodland population bounced all the way back up to the same level as in 1983-1993.
On the plains, the population’s initial post-rinderpest spurt occurred sometime after George Schaller’s departure in 1969, reaching a new plateau by 1974 when monitoring of the plains prides resumed. The plains population remained unchanged until November 1997, when El Niño brought the heaviest rains in forty years. The grasses on the plains had started growing taller during the early 1990s, and the El Niño floods kept the migration out on the plains for the longest period in decades. A single year with a more consistent food supply was enough to allow the plains lions to spawn whole new prides in the taller grasses.
As Lenin once said, “Sometimes decades pass and nothing happens; and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen.”
Thanks to the Snapshot Serengeti camera trap grid, we can now watch the migration respond to year-to-year variations in rainfall. The next time the lions have a banner year, we will all be able to witness how food on the hoof translates into a baby boom of lucky cubs.
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.
Deep breath; I promise it will be okay.
By now, many of you have probably seen the one image that haunts your dreams: the backlit photo of the towering acacia that makes the wildebeest in front look tiny, with those two terrible words in big white print across the front — “We’re Done!” Now what are you going to do when you drink your morning coffee?? Need a break from staring at spreadsheets?? Are in desperate need of an African animal fix?? Trust me, I know the feeling.
Deep breath. (And skip to the end if you can’t wait another minute to find out when you can ID Snapshot Serengeti animals again.)
I have to admit that as a scientist using the Snapshot Serengeti data, I’m pretty stoked that Seasons 5 and 6 are done. I’ve been anxiously watching the progress bars inch along, hoping that they’d be done in time for me to incorporate them in my dissertation analyses that I’m finally starting to hash out. Silly me for worrying. You, our Snapshot Serengeti community, have consistently awed us with how quickly you have waded through our mountains of pictures. Remember when we first launched? We put up Seasons 1-3 and thought we’d have a month or so to wait. In three days we were scrambling to put up Season 4. This is not usually the problem that scientists with big datasets have!
Now that Seasons 5 and 6 are done, we’ll download all of the classifications for every single capture event and try to make sense of them using the algorithms that Margaret’s written about here and here. We’ll also need to do a lot of data “cleaning” — fixing errors in the database. Our biggest worry is handling incorrect timestamps — and for whatever reason, when a camera trap gets injured, the time stamps are the first things to malfunction (usually shuttling back to 1970 or into the futuristic 2029). It’s a big data cleaning problem for us. First, one of the things we care about is when animals are at different sites, so knowing the time is important. But also, many of the cameras are rendered non-functional for various reasons - meaning that sometimes a site isn’t taking pictures for days or even weeks. To properly analyze the data, we need to line up the number of animal captures with the record of activity, so we know that a record of 0 lions for the week really means 0 lions, and not just that the camera was face down in the mud.
So, we now have a lot of work in front of us. But what about you? First, Season 7 will be on its way soon, and we hope to have it online in early 2014. But that’s so far away! Yes, so in the meanwhile, the Zooniverse team will be “un-retiring” images like they’ve done in previous seasons. This means that we’ll be collecting more classifications on photos that have already been boxed away as “done.” Especially for the really tricky images, this can help us refine the algorithms that turn your classifications into a “correct answer.”
But there are also a whole bunch of awesome new Zooniverse projects out there that we’d encourage you to try in the meanwhile. For example, this fall, Zooniverse launched Plankton Portal, which takes you on a whole different kind of safari. Instead of identifying different gazelles by the white patches on their bums, you identify different species of plankton by their shapes. Although plankton are small, they have big impacts on the system — as the Plankton Portal scientists point out on their new site, “No plankton = No life in the ocean.”
Wherever you choose to spend your time, know that all of us on the science teams are incredibly grateful for your help. We couldn’t do this without you.
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.
I’ve been working on a federal grant application the last couple of weeks. It’s left me feeling a bit like this:
The grant was originally due this upcoming Thursday, but with the government shutdown showing no signs of ending, who knows what will happen? The National Science Foundation’s website is unavailable during the furlough, meaning that nobody can submit applications. So we’ve all been granted an unexpected extension, but we’re not sure until when.
The grant I’m applying for is called the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant. It’s an opportunity for Ph.D. students to acquire funding to add on a piece to their dissertation that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. I’m applying for funds to go down to South Africa and work with a couple of folks from the conservation organization Panthera to collate data from two sites with long-term carnivore research projects. Their research team currently has camera surveys laid out in two reserves in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa: Phinda Private Game Reserve and Mkhuze Game reserve. Now, the cool thing about these reserves is that they are small, fenced, and pretty much identical to each other…except that lions have been deliberately excluded from Mkhuze.
Now, one of the biggest frustrations of working with large carnivores is that I can’t experimentally isolate the processes I’m studying. If I want to know how lions affect the ranging patterns and demography of hyenas, well, I should take out all the lions from a system and see what happens to the hyenas. For obvious reasons, this is never going to happen. But the set-up in Phinda and Mkhuze is the next best thing: by holding everything else constant – habitat, prey – I can actually assess the effect of lions on the ranging and dynamics of hyenas, cheetahs, and leopards by comparing the two reserves.
So, that’s what I’m working on non-stop until whenever it turns out to be due. Because this would be a really cool grant to get. I’m currently working on analyzing some of the camera trap data from Seasons 1-4 and hope to share some of the results with you next week. Until then, I’m going to continue to be a bit of a zombie.
It’s Day 2 of the U.S. government shutdown. While the media blares about congressional politics and occasionally offers a run-down of what the shutdown may or may not mean for the average Joe, the impacts of the shutdown on science are not generally noted. Notice that I said ‘science’ and not ‘U.S. science’ because this shutdown affects scientists around the globe.
For starters, all the federal grant-making agencies are shut. This means no processing of grants, no review of proposals. Everything grinds to a halt. At best, it causes delays. But at worst, it means important science that depends on continuity gets interrupted, forcing some scientists to start their experiments over from scratch; for expensive experiments, it could mean a death knell. Other research that depends on getting funding before a field season may be delayed a year even if the government is shut down for only a few days.
Much of U.S. science is actually done by government employees. One agency, the United States Geological Survey, employs (oh, I can’t look up the number; the website is shut down; let’s just say “many thousands of”) scientists who work on topics like climate, ecosystems, earthquakes, and water quality. While some of these employees — like those who monitor for earthquakes, for example — will keep working as “essential” employees, most are furloughed. They get sent home with no pay and are forbidden by law to do any science. Forbidden. It’s a felony to work when furloughed. This hits home for me, as my husband is a post-doctoral geologist with the the U.S. Geological Survey and we are going without three-quarters of our household income for the length of the shutdown.
In addition to the direct impacts of the shutdown on government funding agencies and on government scientists, many more scientists are indirectly affected by issues of access. I am a fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., but I am employed by the University of Minnesota. The Smithsonian, being a quasi-governmental organization, is shut down. Most of the Smithsonian’s scientists are furloughed. (The folks in the entomology department, where I spend my time, are many of the ones that describe new species of insects previously unknown to science. No new species for a while, everyone. Sorry.) And on top of that, even people who aren’t employees of the Smithsonian (like me) cannot do their work, because they can’t get into the building. I know of visitors from other countries who came to visit the Museum for a few weeks to do research. But they can’t get in.
There are many, many scientists all over the world who collaborate with U.S. government scientists, who depend on U.S. government funding, and who use U.S. federal facilities. All these people are feeling the negative effects of the shutdown and aren’t able to get their science done.