The Sun Spider

315px-Solifugae_Solpugidae_-_Jerrymunglum_female_Dorsal_aspect

Solifuge credit: Jon Richfield Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

 

When living in the bush in Africa your life becomes attuned to the rhythms of nature. Up with the sunrise, the spurfowl, guinea fowl and francolins won’t have it any other way, their raucous calls start well before the sun is actually visible. Physical work can be done until about mid day and then if possible its best to seek shelter till around 4pm when the sun is at least not high enough to cook you yet still pretty hot. By 8pm its dark so there is nothing else to do but sit back around a fire and let the night envelope you.
I am living so basically at the moment, my clothes are starting to look shabby after two weeks of hand washing in minimal water. I am however improving my skills daily at cooking on an open fire. It is amazing what you can do with a skillet, a pot and bits of old rebar and wire. I may have invented a new dish last night, Christmas Eve, when I conjured up a gemsbok stir fry.
The wood here gives new meaning to the term hard wood. Luckily for me there is a ready supply of wood due to the need for bush clearing on this cattle farm. Just a few pieces are enough to get really good coals glowing to cook over. They use a deep three legged cast iron pot in Africa for cooking stews, known as a potjie here in Southern Africa. I might even try my hand at bread next.
So last night after a good feed, Trev and I sat contemplating the embers whilst watching nightjars and bats hawking what looked like flying termites. It has rained recently triggering the eruption, earlier we watched guinea-fowl, hornbills, starlings, drongos and a whole host of other small birds running back and forth slurping them up straight from the holes before they could even get airborne. There is a constant suzzz of insect noise interrupted by the screech of barn owls and the odd jackal.

Then there is a deathly screech to rival that of the barn owl, what is it you ask? well it’s me. Something has just ran up my leg across my back up on to my head and then dropped down again to the ground between my feet. I am not usually given to screaming like a girl and creepy crawlies don’t usually bother me, but there is nothing quite like the dark to bring out the pathetic in us. So a quick scrabble for flash lights ensues and the culprit is spotted.
It’s a solifuge, otherwise known as a sun spider. Not actually a spider, though belonging to the same class, arachnida, they form an order by themselves, solifugae. They differ from spiders in not having silk glands and therefore do not spin webs. They appear to possess 10 legs but in fact the front most pair are actually pedipalps that act as sensors and aid in feeding. They are voracious predators and will eat anything they can overpower such as spiders, scorpions, insects and invertebrates.
Totally harmless to humans they do however install a lot of fear. This is partly due to two behavioural traits. If disturbed in the day the solifuge will head for the nearest dark place, often the very shadow cast by the human that caused the disturbance in the first place, giving the false impression that the solifuge is running at you in attack mode. Similarly at night they will follow a light source, again, often that of a human with a flash light.
The second trait is that they move like greased lightning. They are constantly zipping from here to there in a frantic search for prey to keep their high metabolism ticking over. They have also been known to take human hair to make their nests.
You are not likely to pick one of these up on Snapshot Serengeti’s camera-traps but if you ever get the chance to observe one of these arachnids going about its daily business it is really very fascinating, if of course you can get over your human fear.

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Snapshot Serengeti – Upcoming Changes

*This weeks blog was written by Jamee Snyder, project coordinator and administrative assistant with the Lion Lab, University of Minnesota. She tells us all about a wider a project that Snapshot Serengeti has evolved into and what we can look forward to in the near future.*

 

Seven years ago, the University of Minnesota Lion Center set out 225 cameras in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. These cameras have recorded over 50 species including some of the most threatened species on Earth. With help from over 140,000 citizen scientists from around the world, millions of photographs were reviewed and classified over the past seven years, which provided park managers, conservationists, and researchers with the necessary information to analyze African wildlife population dynamics. This collective effort is a major contribution to ecological research, allowing for the evaluation of long term trends in wildlife populations as well as best practices in conservation management of charismatic african mammals.

hyena

A Snapshot Serengeti Camera-trap image

Snapshot Serengeti was one of the first camera trap surveys to document wildlife populations in a national park and is now one of the longest running camera trap surveys in the world. We have learned a lot over the years, from how to keep our cameras safe from hyena jowls to retrieving data from memory cards that have gone through a wildfire. We are continuously looking for ways to improve this project.

Thanks to years of experience, your participation, and help from several organizations in the U.S. and Africa, we are excited to announce that Snapshot Serengeti is expanding into an international conservation initiative called, “SnapshotSafari.”

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Don’t worry! Snapshot Serengeti isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it will remain essentially the same as we transition into our new platform. The discussion forums and personal image collections will still be available to current and future users. Now, participants will be able to see numerous other parks in addition to the Serengeti. SnapshotSafari will showcase camera trap images from multiple camera trap grids inside dozens of parks and reserves located in six African countries. Intrepid citizen scientists will be able to choose from various exotic habitats, including but not limited to: the Sand Forests of KwaZulu-Natal, the Lowveld of Limpopo, the Fynbos of South Africa’s Cape, and the Karoo desert, in addition to such remarkable ecosystems as Mozambique’s Niassa Reserve, Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park, Swaziland’s Mbuluzi Game Reserve, and Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.

By incorporating multiple sites, we can ask more complex questions regarding African wildlife populations and the factors that contribute to ecosystem stability. For example, researchers can compare population dynamics of reserves that are fenced versus those that are unfenced, or theycan evaluate the environments that successfully host multiple predator species without depleting prey populations. Researchers at the Lion Center will use this dynamic platform to investigate the cascading effects of large mammal reintroductions and ways to limit direct human interventions while still maintaining stable ecosystems within fenced reserves. SnapshotSafari provides an opportunity for participating reserves to collaborate and subsequently develop the most effective conservation strategies for protecting biodiversity.

We are working hard to get SnapshotSafari ready to launch in January. We just completed beta-testing, and the feedback has been very positive. To all of the citizen scientists who participated and to those who continue to be involved with Snapshot Serengeti, we are extremely grateful!

Now, we need your help to finish classifying the final series of images on our original platform, Season 10, at http://www.snapshotserengeti.org before we initiate SnapshotSafari, which will host Season 11. We are very close to finishing classification of these images, so don’t hesitate to invite your friends and family to take a trip to the Serengeti through the lens of one of our camera traps and classify wildlife. Let’s push this meter to the end!

Stay tuned for an official count down, so you can be one of the first to participate in SnapshotSafari and contribute to our collective knowledge and ability to successfully conserve African wildlife.

 

Back in Africa

The Waterberg Plateau

You know you are in Africa when you wake up at the airport lodge on the edge of a capital city and stepping out from your room you come face to face with a bird that towers above you. Ostrich aside the dry heat of the Kalahari leaves you in no doubt you are in Africa.

I am in Namibia where I will be for the next two months. I am working on a cattle farm in the Waterberg plateau that is part of a greater nature conservancy. I have already got my camera-traps out, hopefully snapping away as I write. The idea is to look at how camera-trap spacing affects the chances of recording smaller mammals. There are plenty of those here, bat-eared fox, jackal, caracal, mongoose, pangolin, hare and aardwolf to name but a few.

The great thing about using camera-traps is that now they are up I have some weeks to wait before moving them so I have plenty of time to immerse myself in the African bush. I have already clocked up over 100 bird species in less than a week, its taking a while to get my ear back in gear, I keep hearing tantalisingly familiar calls but can’t quite remember who they belong to. It is the start of the rainy season and subsequently the breeding season so there is an awful lot of activity. The binoculars are back living on my shoulder and in use every few minutes.

The bush here consists of a lot of small bushes and trees interspersed with small open grass patches. Plenty of sickle bush, raisin bush and buffalo thorn. I forgot how hard it is to walk through, constantly getting hooked up on vicious thorns that grab at you as you pass.

The best bit of the trip is living in a tent, ok afternoon naps are impossible in the heat but you get to wake up early to the birds calling. The francolins and spurfowl are calling before the sun even rises. There are white browed sparrow weavers building nests in a tree near the tent that have the loveliest melodies. Then there is the night shift. It is pretty hard to fall asleep sometimes when the noises just make you want to get up and investigate. So far I have come face to face with a honey badger sniffing around our fire and several genets. The jackal’s shrill call is omnipresent but the one I listen out for is the rasping call of the leopard. I haven’t been disappointed, every other night that sound rumbles through me.

My internet connection is not so great but I should still be making regular posts for Snapshot Serengeti and there are still plenty of images to classify. We would like to run season 11 in the New Year if we can get season 10 completed. I may even have the odd camera-trap image from my Namibia project to share. Watch this space.

Identifying Small Carnivores

 

One of the groups of animals that seem to prove quite tricky to tell apart on Snapshot Serengeti are the small carnivores that belong to the canid and hyenid family. That is to say the jackals, black-backed and side-striped, the bat-eared fox and the aardwolf.

There are good reasons for this. Firstly they are predominantly nocturnal, though the jackals can often be seen in day light hours. Secondly they are small and constantly on the watch for larger predators. Studies have even shown that similar species such as coyotes are rather camera-trap shy so it could be possible these African cousins are avoiding the cameras. I noticed when looking for bat-eared fox images particularly that there are very few close up images, the foxes always seem to be in the distance. Something to maybe study?

So back to classifying, what’s the best way to tell these species apart?

Let’s start with the jackals, the most dog–like of the Serengeti’s small carnivores.

The first thing to note is there are actually three possible jackals to be found in the Serengeti but I will stick here to the side-striped and black-backed as the most common, the golden jackal doesn’t come up so often on our cameras but looks broadly the same as the other two with slightly more uniform colouring.

 

Jackals have dog like proportions with the shoulders and hind end approximately the same height. They have very pointed muzzles and large pointed ears. The black-backed can be distinguished by its black saddle running from the back of the neck through the shoulders up to a point at the top of the tail. It is flecked with white hairs giving a grizzled appearance. The rest of the body is a sandy colour. The side-striped is more uniform grey brown with a flash down its side both light and dark but lacking the saddle. The tip of the tail is often white. Their ears are smaller than black-backed jackal.

 

The bat-eared fox meanwhile is a strange looking creature. All three of these carnivores have large ears to help them locate prey but the bat-eared fox wins the prize. Its ears dwarf its little face which is very small. They need these huge ears to locate their insect prey. Over all bat-eared foxes are the smallest of the three and have a rather plain silver/grey coat with dark legs, ears and upper parts of its thick bushy tail. If you are not sure look at the over all posture. The jackals hold their head high on a strong neck but the little bat-eared fox often has his head down and appears to have no neck.

Aardwolf, although not canids, are included here because in size and shape they are very similar to the other two. Fortunately these guys have distinctive striped coats which help separate them from all but the much larger and very rare (in Snapshot Serengeti) striped hyena. The aardwolf seems to have a rather thick long neck and a much more hyena shaped heavy muzzle.

So the tip here is to look closely at body form as well as colour, hopefully seeing these images of the three together will be helpful next time you get stuck classifying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday To Us

Camera-trap

 

Snapshot Serengeti has around 225 camera-traps laid out in a grid in the heart of the Serengeti National Park. They have been there for around 7 years and make up one of the longest running camera-trap monitoring projects in the world. Snapshot was launched on the Zooniverse portal in December 2012 and has inspired many more similar camera-trap projects from around the world. So Happy 5th Birthday to us, may there be many more to come.

There is no doubt that camera-trapping has gripped the hearts and imagination of both scientists and the public. Eight years ago when I first used camera-traps I had to explain them very carefully to friends and family as they had never encountered them, these days references to camera-traps appear in popular press articles and  wildlife documentaries and most people have a basic idea of their use in conservation.

It was K. Ullas Karanth, an Indian wildlife zoologist, who is credited with pioneering the use of camera-traps as scientific tools in his study of tigers in the 1990’s. In the last two decades the technique has advanced at a hugely fast pace and has revolutionised the study of elusive and seemingly well known species alike. It is a scientists dream to observe animals without being present yourself to influence their behaviour.

But looking at the history of the discipline I can across many references to much earlier work using camera-traps. Back in 1927 National Geographic published an article by Frank M Chapman titled delightfully “Who Treads Our Trails”. The piece opens with this amazing paragraph

“If there be any sport in which the joys of anticipation are more prolonged, the pleasures of realisation more enduring, than that of camera trapping in the Tropics I have yet to find it!”

This guy would have loved Snapshot Serengeti. This is most likely the very first scientific paper to report on using camera-traps all be it very different cameras. His rig involved a tripwire the animal steps on rigged up to the camera shutter and bowls of magnesium that will explode and create the flash needed to illuminate the animal at night time. It seems incredible now that this would be allowed considering today’s ethically minded ethos but the author himself points out that the alternatives to studying animals could include using dogs or trappers to catch an animal or even poison bait. He decides he wants a census of the living not a record of the dead and so the idea of camera-traps for scientific study are born. He drew heavily from the work of George Shiras who published the first pictures taken by remote camera back in 1906 (also in National Geographic). George Shiras took the pictures for the pictures sake only later becoming involved with conservation but Frank Chapman was a true scientist.

Obviously the technology has changed a lot and the loud noisy explosions that accompanied Franks work have been replaced by covert black IR where even the glow of the infra-red flash is almost invisible. He would marvel at the amount of pictures that can be stored on an average SD card and that camera-traps are being used from the tropics to the snowfields of Antarctica.

You can look for the original article with this reference:

Chapman, F.M., September 1927. “Who Treads Our Trails?“, National Geographic, 52(3), 331-345

Or visit this site to see some of Frank Chapman’s images: http://www.naturespy.org/2014/03/camera-traps-science/

Unusual Critters

There is a small mammal that is found in the Serengeti which I am not sure we have ever captured on camera-trap or if we have most of you won’t have got the chance to classify them as the capture rate will be very low.

It is not because they are rare or even that elusive, visit the Serengeti or any number of suitable reserves across Africa and you will bump into these odd little creatures. It is just that they are very restricted by their habitat which is rocky outcrops.

The mammal I am talking about is a relative of the elephant, yes that’s right, the largest land mammal is cousin to this rabbit sized African curiosity, the hyrax otherwise known as rock rabbits or dassies. It seems that the two species split some 70 odd million years ago so plenty of time to both specialise in their own way. However one odd trait the hyrax retained was a long gestation period (7 months) more similar to larger mammals. Compare this to scrub hares that have a gestation period of around 42 days. New born hyraxes are extremely well developed and commence eating grass within a few days of birth. Unusually for a small mammal life expectancy is long, up to 12 years.

 

Rock Hyrax  Procavia Capensis

Rock Hyrax

 

Photo Credit: Max Pixel; creative commons zero- cco

 

There are two species of hyrax we could encounter in the Serengeti, the rock hyrax (Procavia sp) and the bush hyrax (Heterohyrax brucei). In fact they can even be seen side by side sunning themselves on rocks. Although they both make their homes in rocky outcrops the two have decidedly different life styles. The rock hyrax eats predominantly grasses and rarely strays far from rocky out crops, conversely the bush hyrax eats mainly leaves, twigs and bark which it climbs trees to eat. The two species however live in colonies in rocks and in the Serengeti at least these colonies can be a mix of both species. The rocky retreats act not only as safety from the many predators that eat hyrax but also offer a way to thermo-regulate.

It’s a wonder that these closely related species don’t hybridise but it seems they have extremely different genital structures as well as the differing dental work needed to cope with the different diets. All species have long sharp upper incisors that are often used in dominance scuffles, hyrax can be very bad tempered and those incisors can inflict serious damage.

 

Bush Hyrax showing incisors

 

Photo Credit: Peter Steward, Flickr CC-BY-NC2.0

 

Living in a relatively small area and in colonies has lead to some interesting behaviour amongst hyrax. They use latrines which are thought to be centuries old. In fact you can often spot the white stains on the rocks of an active colony.

All in all a fascinating little creature, if you are ever faced with a snapshot image with rocks in, take a good look to see if you can’t see a hyrax sitting there.

Kori bustard; Strutting its stuff in the Serengeti.

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I found this series of captures from one of the Snapshot Serengeti camera-traps. It shows nicely the way a kori bustard cruises around the savannah looking for things to eat. With males reaching up to 19kg these birds are Africa’s heaviest flying bird.  In order to get airborne these birds need a lot of space as they must run to gain momentum. Once airborne their big powerful wings mean they can fly at quite a speed. However they only fly when pushed spending most of their time walking sedately through grasslands.

Found in two main pockets, south, south west Africa and east Africa they favour flat arid open country. The Serengeti plains are ideal habitat. Here they amble around looking for a wide variety of food eating berries, seeds and other plant matter as well as lizards, snakes, rodents and birds. They are known to gather in quite some numbers where there are infestations of locust or other insects. Like other large ground birds recent fires also attract them where they search for scorched or injured small animals. Kori bustards are known to drink water using a sucking motion which is unusual for birds.

Not unexpectedly for such a large bird, they do not roost in trees preferring to bed down on the ground which is also where they build their nests. However they do like to choose a feature to build their scrape of a nest near, perhaps a rock  or tree stump or even a clump of grass. Not such a silly idea to choose a landmark in an otherwise featureless landscape.

A kori bustard chick is precocial meaning it can walk around almost as soon as it is born, very important for ground nesting birds. It shares a common trait with other ground nesters of having a cryptic plumage completely different to the adult plumage that helps conceal the young from predators. The stripy baby is also very cute.

 

Kori bustard chick

Credit: Photo by Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian’s National Zoo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Although the kori bustard does very well in the Serengeti outside of protected areas they have suffered like so many other animals from a reduction in numbers through loss of habitat and falling prey to hunters.

 

Wonderful Wildebeests

Wildebeest

 

I thought I would write about wildebeest this week, it seems we take them for granted a bit. Certainly on Snapshot Serengeti they generate about the most images and it has been commented in the past “No, not another wildebeest”. The Serengeti is after all world famous for its wildebeest.

But what do you know about them, other than the roam around in large herds and get eaten by lions, leopards, hyenas and crocs?

Well ecologically they have evolved in a fascinating way. They are heavily dependent on water, never straying more than 20km or so from it. However, their square looking lips are designed for nibbling at short grass swards that are found in drier, fire maintained grasslands like that of the Serengeti and they are unsuited to wetter areas of equatorial Africa where grasses become tall and rank. They are bulk grazers that operate in large herds. Wildebeest are not especially fast runners having a body shape that favours their digestive tract, instead they rely on the size of the herd for protection. Unlike their close cousins, the hartebeest who are designed to outpace predators, wildebeest have proportionately shorter legs and males develop sturdy thick necks.

We have all seen footage of the migration with nervous looking wildebeest stampeding along, hell bent on reaching their destination. What you may not know is that this mass getting together stimulates the rutting state in both sexes. In amongst the moving herds males try desperately to mark out and keep a small territory from which he cavorts around noisily evicting other males and trying to impress a few females to mate with. The problem is he has to keep moving with the herd so these territories are very temperal and really only exist in his mind and he has to move on every day or so in order to keep up with the ladies. There are always a few males left in the wake of the procession that get caught up with fighting each other and trying to hold territories without realising the females have all gone. Once the migration has reached its destination everything calms down a bit and things get back to normal, breaking up into smaller groups until it’s time to do it all again.

Wildebeest no longer exist in their historic numbers. They are particularly affected by land use changes, susceptible to domestic live stock diseases and are targeted by poachers. Their dependence on water, quality short grasslands and large herd size means they don’t fare well on marginal land. However it’s not all bad news. Wildebeest are well represented in national parks across their range in Africa.

 

Leopards; Most catty of cats?

This week I posted a great image of an elusive leopard on the Snapshot Serengeti facebook page. I have a real soft spot for these large cats that stems from my first foray into the world of camera-trap studies. Back then I lived on a small nature reserve in South Africa where leopards were the top predator. Without lion present and an abundance of prey the leopards thrived there and our study looked at the population density on the reserve. The interesting thing with the study was that we almost never physically saw a leopard on the reserve yet we were able to get heaps of camera-trap photos. It was although these leopards had learned that yes this was a great place to live, just keep your head down when one of those humans comes by.

I have been thinking about what draws me to leopards more than the other big cats of Africa and decided it’s the catty-ness of them. Now don’t get me wrong, lion and cheetah are definitely cat like too but somehow they are out done by the leopard.

Let’s take the lion. King of beasts they may be but really, hanging out in prides, what’s that all about. That’s what dogs do right? And cheetah, well with those only semi retractable claws and that speed over the plains, well, it could almost be a greyhound.

Now back to the catty-ness of leopards. Well they slink about, pounce on anything they can get away with, shoot up trees at the drop of a hat and generally act aloof just like you average house moggy. One more thing they share with their diminutive house cousins, they love to sit in boxes. Ok maybe not boxes but I have seen leopard tucked up all cosy in various natural alternatives. The picture below I took in the Kgalagadi where this leopard was sound asleep on top of a giant sociable weaver nest.

 

Leopard in weaver nest

 

 

The beautiful cryptic pattern of the leopard is one of its best adaptations that allow it to thrive in all kinds of habitats across Africa and Asia. Their coat pattern helps to break down their overall shape and they use broken terrain and vegetation to conceal their presence as they stalk close to prey and then ambush. More than capable of taking large prey leopards will happily snack on rodents, insects and small mammals if the opportunity presents itself. This camera-trap image shows a leopard with a zebra kill. The actual event was witnessed by a colleague who confirms that the leopard came out of nowhere and caught the zebra totally by surprise.

 

Leopard with zebra kill

 

Despite this seemingly remarkable ability to blend into the background leopard do not go unnoticed by man and recent studies have highlighted that leopard numbers too have plummeted as they are targeted for their skins, as trophies and just killed as pests. They seem to be declining in the same way they thrived, quietly and out of sight.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Well it is that time of year again when the winners of the prestigious wildlife photographer of the year awards are announced.

Having a browse through this year’s winners I notice with a touch of sadness but a good dose of hope just how many of the photos touch on the demise of wildlife and have a conservation message. Brent Stirton’s moving image of a poached black rhino although tragic is a strong weapon in itself in the fight to change the hearts and minds of those people that covet rhino horn.

One of my favourite images is in the bird behaviour category. The much maligned marabou stork is the subject and the shot was taken in the one spot on this planet that Snapshot Serengeti fans know so well, yes the Serengeti.

But the story doesn’t end there. The photographer who was awarded finalist in the bird behaviour category is well known to us. Daniel Rosengren worked for the Serengeti Lion project for 5 years in the field with the most enviable job going. He spent every day following the study lions getting to know them intimately and generally building up the rich source of study data that this 30 year+ project has gained.

Of course when Dr Ali Swanson came up with her wonderful idea of seeding the area with 200 odd camera traps and the Snapshot Serengeti project was born it was Daniel who looked after our precious cameras for several years. So we have a lot to thank him for.

Daniel moved on from the project in 2015 to pursue a career as a professional wildlife photographer and we congratulate him on his achievement this year in the wildlife photographer of the year award. Well done!

If you want to learn more about the story behind his image or just want to see some stunning wildlife images visit his website here http://danielrosengren.se/wpy-awardee/

And to see all the other winners from this year’s wpy 2017 visit

http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit/wpy.html