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Cheetahs rocking the boat…again!

Cheetahs, it seems, just can’t stop shattering everything we believed to be true about them.

Scientists have long believed that lions (and hyenas to some extent) threaten cheetah conservation efforts —  in large part because they kill so many cheetah cubs. But last year, researchers from South Africa revealed that lions probably don’t kill as many cheetah cubs as folks previously believed. And shortly after that, our research showed that regardless of the amount of lion-inflicted cheetah cub mortality, cheetahs do just fine around large lion populations.

Just last month, another story broke that shakes up how we think about cheetahs. It turns out that not only are cheetahs not as vulnerable to killing by lions, but they cheetahs aren’t nearly as vulnerable to non-lethal bullying either. It was thought that because cheetahs couldn’t fight back against lions – or hyenas – they lost a lot of their hard-earned kills to these ruthless scavengers. (Yes, both lions and hyenas do steal food from each other and from cheetahs.) We knew that wild dogs expend so much energy hunting that they can’t afford to lose even moderate levels of food, and assumed that cheetahs were similarly vulnerable. But, as a recent study from Bostwana and South Africa found out, they aren’t.  It turns out that despite being super fast, cheetahs don’t expend all that much energy chasing down their prey. Researchers estimate that cheetahs could lose a full 50% of their kills to lions and hyenas, and still get all the calories they need!

All in all, it’s beginning to look a lot like the biggest threats to cheetahs aren’t lions and hyenas. Instead, availability of denning sites (as suggested by our research) and human destruction of habitat that forces cheetahs to travel far and wide in search of prey (suggested by this most recent study) are probably much, much greater threats to their survival.


Tidbits on wild dogs

One of our long-time Snapshot Serengeti members (thanks Reid!) sent me this NY Times article on African wild dogs. As you know, we don’t have wild dogs in the study area (though keep your eyes peeled! TANAPA did reintroduce them into the western corridor the other year, and I keep hoping we’ll catch one traveling through our grid).

But I am very interested in how dogs interact with the larger carnivore community. And these animals are just *so* cool – incredibly energetic and full of nerve. Watching a small group of dogs defend their kill against a hunting party of hyenas was one of the highlights of my trip to South Africa in June.

Photo by Ingela Jansson

Photo by Ingela Jansson

The article points out that wild dogs may fare better when lions fare worse (which I’ve reported on here) — and that raises some questions about questions about how to target conservation efforts. Do we have to choose between which species to protect? I’d say “not necessarily.” My dissertation research suggests that although dogs fare worse in small reserves with lions, there are places where wild dogs seem to do just fine. Selous Game Reserve (TZ) and Kruger National Park (SA), for example – big areas that have complex habitat structures. So the answer to protecting the entire carnivore guild may lie in larger, diverse reserves.

There are currently efforts in place to do create a protected area the size of Sweden that spans five southern & east African countries. If successful, according to the NY Times, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area will be the largest terrestrial protected area in the world. Now that’s something to celebrate.

Nyala are way prettier than impala

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

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

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

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

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

More results!

As I’m writing up my dissertation (ahh!), I’ve been geeking out with graphs and statistics (and the beloved/hated stats program R). I thought I’d share a cool little tidbit.

Full disclosure: this is just a bit of an expansion on something I posted back in March about how well the camera traps reflect known densities. Basically, as camera traps become more popular, researchers are increasingly looking for simple analytical techniques that can allow them to rapidly process data. Using the raw number of photographs or animals counted is pretty straightforward, but is risky because not all animals are equally “detectable”: some animals behave in ways that make them more likely to be seen than other animals. There are a lot of more complex methods out there to deal with these detectability issues, and they work really well — but they are really complex and take a long time to work out. So there’s a fair amount of ongoing debate about whether or not raw capture rates should ever be used even for quick and dirty rapid assessments of an area.

Since the Serengeti has a lot of other long term monitoring, we were able to compare camera trap capture rates (# of photographs weighted by group size) to actual population sizes for 17 different herbivores. Now, it’s not perfect — the “known” population sizes reflect herbivore numbers in the whole park, and we only cover a small fraction of the park. But from the graph below, you’ll see we did pretty well.


Actual herbivore densities (as estimated from long-term monitoring) are given on the x-axis, and the # photographic captures from our camera survey are on the y-axis. Each species is in a different color (migratory animals are in gray-scale). Some of the species had multiple population estimates produced from different monitoring projects — those are represented by all the smaller dots, and connected by a line for each species. We took the average population estimate for each species (bigger dots).

We see a very strong positive relationship between our photos and actual population sizes: we get more photos for species that are more abundant. Which is good! Really good! The dashed line shows the relationship between our capture rates and actual densities for all species. We wanted to make sure, however, that this relationship wasn’t totally dependent on the huge influx of wildebeest and zebra and gazelle — so we ran the same analysis without them. The black line shows that relationship. It’s still there, it’s still strong, and it’s still statistically significant.

Now, the relationship isn’t perfect. Some species fall above the line, and some below the line. For example, reedbuck and topi fall below the line – meaning that given how many topi really live in Serengeti, we should have gotten more pictures. This might be because topi mostly live in the northern and western parts of Serengeti, so we’re just capturing the edge of their range. And reedbuck? This might be a detectability issue — they tend to hide in thickets and so might not pass in front of cameras as often as animals that wander a little more actively.

Ultimately, however, we see that the cameras do a good overall job of catching more photos of more abundant species. Even though it’s not perfect, it seems that raw capture rates give us a pretty good quick look at a system.

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!




A different way to see the world

I posted a little while ago about the applications of remote sensing technology in biological research. Here’s a TED talk by one of the authors of the South African study I mentioned with some fascinating visuals showing the level of detail these technologies can reveal to us. While the talk starts off flying you through a “lion’s-eye” view of hunting terrain, Greg Asner goes on to reveal some of the other ecological and conservation implications of these technologies and how they can help us do things from finding illegal goldmines and documenting species composition in the Amazon to tracking habitat changes by elephants and fire back in Africa.


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!


What we’ve seen so far, Part IV

Last week I wrote about using really simple approaches to interpret camera trap data. Doing so makes the cameras a really powerful tool that virtually any research team around the world can use to quickly survey an ecosystem.

Existing monitoring projects in Serengeti give us a really rare opportunity to actually validate our results from Snapshot Serengeti: we can compare what we’re seeing in the cameras to what we see, say, from radio-tracking collared lions, or to the number of buffalo and elephants counted during routine flight surveys.

Ingela scanning for lions from the roof of the car.

Ingela scanning for lions from the roof of the car.

One of the things we’ve been hoping to do with the cameras is to use them to understand where species are, and how those distributions change. As you know, I’ve struggled a bit with matching lion photographs to known lion ranging patterns. Lions like shade, and because of that, they are drawn to camera traps on lone, shady trees on the plains from miles and miles away.

But I’ve finally been able to compare camera trap captures to know distributions for other animals. Well, one other animal: giraffes.  From 2008-2010, another UMN graduate student, Megan Strauss, studied Serengeti giraffes and recorded where they were. By comparing her data with camera trap data, we can see that the cameras do okay.

The graph below compares camera trap captures to known densities of giraffes and lions. Each circle represents a camera trap; the bigger the circle, the more photos of giraffes (top row) or lions (bottom row). The background colors reflect known relative densities measured from long-term monitoring: green means more giraffes or lions; tan/white means fewer. For giraffes, on the whole, we get more giraffe photos in places that have more giraffes. That’s a good sign. The scatterplot visualizes the map in a different way, showing the number of photos on the y-axis vs. the known relative densities on the x-axis.



What we see is that cameras work okay for giraffes, but not so much for lions. Again, I suspect that this has a lot to do with the fact that lions are incredibly heat stressed, and actively seek out shade (which they then sleep in for 20 hours!). But lions are pretty unique in their extreme need for shade, so cameras probably work better for most other species. We see the cameras working better for giraffes, which is a good sign.

We’ve got plans to explore this further. In fact, Season 7 will overlap with a wildebeest study that put GPS collars on a whole bunch of migratory wildebeest. For the first time, we’ll be able to compare really fine scale data on the wildebeest movements to the camera trap photos, and we can test even more precisely just how well the cameras work for tracking large-scale animal movements.  Exciting!

What we’ve seen so far, Part III

Over the last few weeks, I’ve shared some of our preliminary findings from Seasons 1-6 here  and here. As we’re still wrapping up the final stages of preparation for Season 7, I thought I’d continue in that vein.

One of the coolest things about camera traps is our ability to simultaneously monitor many different animal species all at once. This is a big deal. If we want to protect the world around us, we need to understand how it works. But the world is incredibly complex, and the dynamics of natural systems are driven by many different species interacting with many others. And since some of these critters roam for hundreds or thousands of miles, studying them is really hard.

I have for a while now been really excited about the ability of camera traps to help scientists study all of these different species all at once. But cameras are tricky, because turning those photographs into actual data on species isn’t always straightforward. Some species, for example, seem to really like cameras,

so we see them more often than we really should — meaning we might think there are more of that critter than there really are.  There are statistical approaches to deal with this kind of bias in the photos, but these statistics are really complex and time consuming.

This has actually sparked a bit of a debate among researchers who use camera traps. Researchers and conservationists have begun to advocate camera traps as a cost-effective, efficient, and accessible way to quickly survey many understudied, threatened ecosystems around the world. They argue that basic counting of photographs of different species is okay as a first pass to understand what animals are there and how many of them there are. And that requiring the use of the really complex stats might hinder our ability to quickly survey threatened ecosystems.

So, what do we do?  Are these simple counts of photographs actually any good? Or do we need to spend months turning them into more accurate numbers?

Snapshot Serengeti is really lucky in that many animals have been studied in Serengeti over the years. Meaning that unlike many camera trap surveys, we can actually check our data against a big pile of existing knowledge. In doing so, we can figure out what sorts of things cameras are good at and what they’re not.

Comparing the raw photographic capture rates of major Serengeti herbivores to their population sizes as estimated in the early 2000’s, we see that the cameras do an okay job of reflecting the relative abundance of different species. The scatterplot below shows the population sizes of 14 major herbivores estimated from Serengeti monitoring projects on the x-axis, and camera trap photograph rates of those herbivores on the y-axis. (We take the logarithm of the value for statistical reasons.) There are really more wildebeest than zebra than buffalo than eland, and we see these patterns in the number of photographs taken.


Like we saw the other week, monthly captures shows that we can get a decent sense of how these relative abundances change through time.


So, by comparing the camera trash photos to known data, we see that they do a pretty good job of sketching out some basics about the animals. But the relationship also isn’t perfect.

So, in the end, I think that our Snapshot Serengeti data suggests that cameras are a fantastic tool and that raw photographic capture rates can be used to quickly develop a rough understanding of new places, especially when researchers need to move quickly.  But to actually produce specific numbers, say, how many buffalo per square-km there are, we need to dive in to the more complicated statistics. And that’s okay.


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