Imagine you are an impala.
You’re hungry. You want to go find some lovely nice grass to graze, and you know where the tastiest grass is. The only problem is that every time you go over to taste that best grass, you smell lion. And, well, that’s a little scary. So what do you do? Take the chance and go nibble the tastiest of tasty grasses? Or go elsewhere where the grass isn’t quite as nice?
This conflict for herbivores between finding the most nutritious food available and not becoming food is the basis for some of our research questions. We know that lions prioritize certain areas for hunting. In fact, former Lion Research Center researcher Anna Mosser discovered that lions set up their territories near where rivers and streams come together. Here there is open water where herbivores may come to drink and lots of green vegetation (which is good eating for herbivores, but also provides a place for lions to hide and stalk those herbivores).
We know what the lions do. But what we don’t really know is what sort of decisions the herbivores make. The answer to this question likely depends on the answers to some other questions. We might first ask: what does the distribution of grass look like out in the Serengeti? If it’s the wet season and there’s good grass all around, perhaps we’d expect that herbivores would tend to avoid places with lots of lions. But if it’s the dry season and the only good places to eat are near rivers, then maybe the herbivores are forced to eat near lions so they don’t starve.
Or, we might ask: for any given herbivore species, how likely is it to be attacked by lions? Very large herbivores – like hippos, elephants, and giraffes – are a lot less likely to be attacked by lions than their mid-sized relatives. So maybe these big herbivores don’t care very much about whether they’re eating near lions or not.
We also have to ask the question of whether the herbivores can even tell which areas have a lot of lions and which don’t. If they can’t tell where the lions are, then we’d expect them to spread out, with more herbivores in areas of better foliage and fewer animals where the foliage isn’t so good.
The data you’re giving us through Snapshot Serengeti will help us understand the choices herbivores are making. We’ll be able to map the distributions of lots of different herbivore species. Then we’ll compare the distributions with the areas with the best greenery and the areas where lions congregate. We’ll be able to see if different herbivore species distribute themselves in different ways. And we’ll be able to see, over time, how these herbivore distributions change with dry season, wet season, droughts, and floods.