Archive | News RSS for this section

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.
 
       

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!

 

Made it to Tanzania!

P1130269

I arrived in Kilimajaro airport last week, disembarking in the foothills of the famous peak itself. As you can see, by the time we finally touched down, you could hardly make out the mountain in the darkness. It was a long day (3 connections, 35+ hours) of air travel, followed by a final hour of bus-ride before I made it to Arusha and was picked up by the delightful Susan (of the Savannas Forever organization), whose home I have invaded for the time being.

My luggage, of course, was lost – all of it. Mechanical issues on one of my first flights made the resulting connections more than a bit close (I counted those airport sprints as my daily exercise), so I image my bags were sitting neglected in some corner of the Amsterdam airport for a few days before they eventually made it back to me. Poor Susan had to put up with me smelling pretty ripe in the meantime!

Arusha itself if a fairly busy town, and I’ve spent most of the last week plugging away at my permits and catching up on some reading and writing that has been neglected over the last semester. The permitting is, as anticipated, a fairly slow process. There have been a few almost ridiculous set-backs: the wildlife institution had misspelled my email address, so I was completely unaware that Permit #1 had even been granted (!) and I’m experiencing a few snags getting my fees transferred to the right people. C’est la vie, thankfully, nothing insurmountable as of yet. I’m optimistically hoping to get things sorted out before the next two weeks are up, as I’m dying to get out of civilization and into the real outdoors.

However, it would be a lie to make it seem like completely drudgery out here! I did allow myself to take a short break this weekend and headed up to a nearby reptile park with a Maasai friend I met through Susan. I have a soft spot for the scaly critters and greatly enjoyed the opportunity to handle these gorgeous sand boas:

P1130294 P1130300

(My friend, Lemmy, was not as enthusiastic)

I’m posting mid-week not only to report that my travels ended well, but also for a bit of a self-plug: today is my 24th birthday! Couldn’t ask for a better place to spend it in!

South Africa, here I come! (cont’d)

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I’d received NSF funding to carry out some research in South Africa.

Well, today, I leave to go do that!

I’m still frantically trying to finish up my dissertation, so this trip is only marginally prepared. I have tickets. I’ve started packing (still have 2 hours before heading to the airport, so I’d say I’m in good shape). I have a note to myself to *remember my computer charger*…

I’m excited (whoo! never been to South Africa!). I’m eager (I LOVE trans-atlantic flights because I get to watch movies for 20 hours straight and disappear into this weird twilight zone where time seems to stand still). I’m stressed (So much to do! Still haven’t finished my 3rd dissertation chapter so will need to work on the plane instead of watching all those crappy movies, darn). Sitting in my living room, surrounded by ziplock bags of socks and underwear, quick-dry field pants, power cords and extra batteries, I feel not-quite-ready for this new adventure — but I know it is going to be amazing and full of discovery nonetheless.

So with that, South Africa, here I come!

 

 

Just for fun

I know Mother’s Day was a week ago, but I stumbled across this little gem and thought it was worth posting.  I’m currently frantically prepping for my trip to South Africa, so stay tuned for travel stories soon to come!

 

Fieldwork on the horizon

In news not quite as exciting as Ali’s (congratulations again!), I have just gotten word from the Tanzanian research institute that the proposal I submitted for summer research have been approved! It looks like I’ll be heading out to Dar es Salaam and Arusha in the next  three weeks to get the rest of my permits sorted out, and then head into the field immediately afterward. Definitely looking forward to seeing this amazing system first-hand — I’m sure it will be a surreal experience, after becoming so familiar with the animals and landscape through the camera trap images. Added bonus: I get to leave Minnesota, where it is still snowing. Hurrah!

Lions and cheetahs and dogs, oh my! (final installment)

I’ve written a handful of posts (here and here and here) about how lions are big and mean and nasty…and about how even though they are nasty enough to keep wild dog populations in check, they don’t seem to be suppressing cheetah numbers.

Well, now that research is officially out! It’s just been accepted by the Journal of Animal Ecology and is available here. Virginia Morrell over at ScienceNews did a nice summary of the story and it’s conservation implications here.

One dissertation chapter down, just two more to go!

 

 

 

South Africa, here I come.

Back in October, I wrote about how a grant proposal was turning me into a zombie.

Well, much to my surprise, turns out that my foray into the world of the walking dead was worth the effort. I’ve just heard that the National Science Foundation does, indeed, want to send me to South Africa to carry out this research!

Basically, I’m interested in how the other big carnivores (hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and wild dogs) manage to live with lions. And I think that one of the keys to their coexistence has to do with how the other carnivores distribute themselves across the landscape to avoid being killed or harassed by lions. Do they avoid huge tracts of land and lose access to the valuable resources within? Or are they able to fine-tune their behavior and still use those areas without getting into trouble?

As you know, I’m using the camera traps to try and figure out these patterns of habitat use by the major carnivores. But that still just tells me what they do in a place (the Serengeti) where there are lions, and I don’t know if the lions are directly causing these patterns. I can’t, for obvious reasons, do an experiment where I take out all the lions and see if the rest of the animals change their behaviors, which would help me identify such a causal relationship.

But in South Africa, there are two virtually identical reserves — they have the same habitat, the same prey animals, and the same carnivores…except that one has lions and one does not. These reserves are right next to each other and surrounded by fencing. So they are pretty much the perfect experimental system where I can actually answer whether or not the patterns we see in predator behavior are caused by lions. What’s even better is that there are already ongoing research projects there that are running camera trap surveys very similar to Snapshot Serengeti. So most of my work will be doing some measurements of the vegetation and working with the researchers in South Africa to compile their data in a way that we can draw these comparisons.

Comparison of Serengeti (left) and Phinda/Mkhuze (right).

Comparison of Serengeti (left) and Phinda/Mkhuze (right). Phinda and Mkhuze are two virtually identical reserves in South Africa, except that lions have historically been excluded from Mkhuze.

It’s going to be a *lot* of computer work with a *little* bit of getting out into the bush, but the questions are so cool and the ability to effectively isolate the effect of a single top predator (lions) in a natural ecosystem is so rare, that I couldn’t be more excited about it.

The History of Lions

Barbary Lion, BBC

Here’s a great post by the BBC about some genetic work that has just been done to shed light on the evolutionary history of lions. Apparently, it’s a bit tricky reconstructing lion history due to the fact that they don’t fossilize particularly well (generally not conducive conditions in lion habitat) and that humans create giant holes in the record by wiping out entire sub-population.

However, from genetic analyses of living lions and museum specimens, these authors have determined that there are two evolutionary groups of lions – those in India and Central/West Africa and those in Eastern/Southern Africa. This happens to have some interesting implications for lion conservation and reintroduction — check out the article!

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,640 other followers