I promised I would have some news about what the Serengeti team has been up to recently in the field. Our beloved camera-trap grid is still being cared for, cards downloaded, batteries replaced and cameras given the once over. So all is well on that front but what is the latest question being asked by the team.
Well thanks to the spatial occupancy modelling of the Snapshot Serengeti camera-trap grid we have learned a lot about how the animals share the environment. What we can’t derive from the camera trap images is the details of what the different species are doing when they are in those spaces and how so many large herbivores can exist together. It could be that they simply facilitate each others foraging or maybe they are using different resources. Scientists have identified what is known as niche partitioning, a mechanism that sees different species specialising in eating different proportions of grasses verses non-grasses; pure grazers and pure browsers and a sliding scale between the two. A second mechanism sees different species eating different parts of the same plant.
These two mechanisms seem to make perfect sense but it is not understood to what extent these two truly affect coexistence of large herbivores. This is where the Snapshot Serengeti team research comes in.
Under our own Dr Michael Anderson they have teamed up with Dr Rob Pringle and researchers at Princeton University in using a revolutionary new analysis method known as DNA metabarcoding to see what exactly each animal is eating.
Up until recently scientists studying herbivore diet had two choices, they could watch their subjects and try to identify what they were eating or they could use microhistology, whereby plant parts in faeces are visually identified. As you can imagine these methods are fine for differentiating between, say, grasses and trees but don’t allow scientists to classify down to individual plant species. With DNA metabarcoding they now have that ability and it should tell us a whole lot more about how the animals divide their resources in space and time.
So that’s the science but how does the team collect this data. Well as with microhistology it involves dung. Our intrepid scientists are roaming the Serengeti collecting poop from as many different herbivores as they can and then it all has to be shipped back to the labs for analysis.
If you are thinking that our team must be highly skilled detectives able to identify a wide variety of brown pellets in the savannah grasses then think again. That’s not to say they can’t but this work relies on 100% knowing which species produced said dung its sex and age as well as a sample that has not been contaminated in anyway. The method of collection relies then, on stealthy observation waiting for an individual to lift its tail and sprinkle the ground with brown pellets before running in with your sample jar at the ready to collect the freshly deposited “clean” offerings. I have some experience with this work and believe me it does feel slightly odd to be observing animals in this way, willing them on to have a bowel movement so you can move on to the next species. It is also a little risky as you can get so engrossed at watching your target animal that you forget there are predators there watching and waiting. At least in this project it is only herbivores the team are interested in, to do the same with predator’s faeces, that’s a whole lot more smelly.
The study is still in its early stages but the team reports they are already seeing some noteworthy things.
Spoiler alert, early results suggest that there are only two ‘pure’ grazers in Serengeti (zebra and warthog) and lots of variation between wet and dry season.
We will bring you further updates once the team has finished their analysis work and have the full results. It promises to be exciting stuff. In the meantime you can think on the glamorous job a field scientist has whilst you stay clean at home helping with the job of classification.
Recently the science team behind Snapshot Serengeti, lead by Dr Michael Anderson, were wandering around the plains going about their latest research (more about that soon) when they got to witness a sight of high intensity, namely a bit of large predator interaction.
The drama occurred around an area known as the Maasi Kopjes. The team at this stage were in their vehicle, as a lioness was nearby, when they noticed a lone cheetah wandering into the lioness’s territory.
The cheetah is obviously anxious as can be seen in this image.
The lioness quickly picks up the intruders scent and as Michael tells me used their vehicle as cover to stalk closer to the cheetah.
Initially the cheetah was unaware of its impending doom but the lioness’s indignation at the intrusion possibly affected her stealth and the cheetah finally noticed her approach.
The race was on. The big cat race.
From these shots you can see the sudden acceleration of the cheetah and yes, it got away, living to see another day and the lioness happily securing her domain on her territory.
Perhaps you will be lucky enough to see both these animals on our camera-traps!
Thanks to Dr Michael Anderson for sharing his Photo’s with us.
Those of you who have been with us for some time will probably have noticed that the image quality since we switched to the Snapshot Safari platform has reduced, sometimes dramatically. Before I go any further, we are trying hard to fix this but in the meantime I thought I would try and explain what the issues are in a hope that it may induce a little more patience from you. I am afraid that I really am technically challenged when it comes to computer stuff so I am going to be a little vague here but please, if there is anyone out there with more knowledge who can either help explain more appropriately or better still offer our team help don’t hesitate to get in touch.
So the trouble all started when Snapshot Serengeti joined the bigger Snapshot Safari platform at the start of this year. At this time Zooniverse was having a big overhaul with older projects operating on Ouroboros moving over to the Panoptes format. Essentially Ouroboros and Panoptes are both software packages which enable projects to build their pages and run them.
Of course Snapshot Serengeti being one of the oldest Zooniverse projects was designed using Ouroboros and has had some teething problems with the switch over. One thing to remember is that the teams involved with bringing all the camera trap images to the Snapshot Serengeti platform are for the most part unpaid graduate and undergraduate students studying ecology. They are not experts in computer programming yet have to keep the platforms running and fix all the problems.
In the old days the University of Minnesota based team would upload the batches of images from the camera traps and send them to Zooniverse who would process and upload them to the platforms. That was when there were a dozen or so projects. There are now over 50 active projects. Can you imagine how long it would take for Zooniverse to do all the uploading? To address this problem they have asked individual projects to manage the uploading themselves. To complicate this process a little more they have also placed a 600GB maximum file size on the images.
This all means that the team of ecologists at Minnesota have to engage computer code developers to write custom scripts enabling their super computers to interact with the Zooniverse web platform. The image quality issue then is not because we have started using different camera’s or taking images at a lower resolution it is due to the code that compresses the images from their full size to less than 600GB. Those images that were smaller in the first place have been less effected than the larger ones and hence the mixture of quality that we are seeing.
So as I said earlier we are trying hard to get this problem sorted and bring you back the kind of top rate images you are used to and hope to have things sorted with the next batch of images we upload. In the meantime please spare a thought for the team and remember that like you they are all volunteers, all be t with a slightly more vested interest in the research project. I hope that you will bear with us and keep up the much needed support you have always given us.
After my latest field trip to Namibia I was fortunate enough to spend a few weeks visiting some old haunts in South Africa. Even though I had very little time and no real scientific purpose other than curiosity I could not help but put out my camera traps whilst I was there. It was after all a nature reserve and surprises can happen.
One of the camera traps was located on a well used animal track that lead from the bush down to the river. The rains had not thus far been kind in that part of Africa and the bush was rather dry with little standing water so I was confident the track would offer some interesting images. As expected I had lots of images of vervet monkey, warthog, impala, nyala and waterbuck. Imagine my surprise then when I scrolled through 20 or so images of a small herd of waterbuck does with young to find this fluffy looking white thing that looked more like a sheep!
In fact it was a leucisitic waterbuck. Not to be confused with albinism, which is a condition caused by absence of melanin leading to pale skin, hair, feathers and eyes, leucism is defined as a partial loss of pigmentation that leads to an animal appearing pale or patchy but often with patterns still showing. The eyes in animals with leucism are normally coloured never the red that can occur in albinism. So albinism is a lack of melanin and leucism is a partial lack of melanin.
You can see this little waterbuck still has the distinctive bulls eye target ring around its rump that distinguish the common water buck from the Defassa waterbuck we are used to in the Serengeti proving it is leucistic not albino.
Regardless of which of the two conditions it has the young animal will have a tough time. The pale colour makes it stand out as a target to predators and it is thought that survival rates for leucistic animals are low. That’s not to say it won’t make it to adult hood, in fact the white lions of the Timbavati are a well followed case of leucism in a population that every now and then throws up a white cub or two, they are so well watched that it is known that some do survive into adult hood. From those few individuals stem most of the white lions that can be seen in captivity in zoos all be it showing all kinds of horrible traits of constant inbreeding.
After finding these images I was lucky enough to spot the herd with my own eyes. I watched the little leucistic waterbuck playing and frolicking with a like aged normal waterbuck and for all the world you wouldn’t know what all the fuss was about. The two were identical in every way except the pure chance of a mutated gene governing colour. Good luck to the pair of them.
Symbiotic relationships are common in the Serengeti. They fall into two main types, mutualism, whereby both partners benefit from one another and commensalism, whereby one partner benefits from the actions of the other but the other partner is largely unaffected or unharmed. I wrote recently of oxpeckers and large herbivores, large herbivores provide food in the form of ticks for the oxpeckers and oxpeckers provide a cleaning service for the large herbivores, a good example of mutualism. Birds such as cattle egrets that follow buffalo around to catch the invertebrates the buffalo disturb as they graze is an example of commensalism. Of course it is not just animals that have symbiotic relationships; my blog last week on termites and mushrooms was another example of mutualism.
So what about zebras and wildebeests? We see them all the time on Snapshot Serengeti in mixed herds, grazing peaceably with one another. Is this just coincidence or is this a form of symbiosis?
It is actually hard to say and of course that is why labelling things, especially behaviour is often tricky.
Zebra and wildebeest are both grazers meaning they mostly eat grasses but that doesn’t mean they share the same diet. They preferentially eat different parts of the plants that they consume. Zebras are quite content chewing longer tougher grasses where as wildebeest prefer shorter, more tender shoots. This partition of resources means they can quite happily graze side by side with out exerting pressure on each other.
Another good reason to team up is the extra safety that numbers provide. Not only do more ears and eyes provide better early warning systems but the odds of the individual being targeted by a predator are reduced when there are greater numbers to choose from. Apparently zebra have better eyesight but wildebeest have better hearing so the two complement each other.
There could be another reason. Our very own Meredith Palmer just published a paper about interspecies reaction to each other’s alarm calls, you can read it here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0003347217304207
She found that zebra, wildebeest and impala recognise each other’s alarm calls but that they did not always respond in the same manner. When zebra sounded the alarm all three herbivores reacted strongly but when impala gave the alarm zebra where likely to ignore it, or assess the relative danger themselves. It seems that this varied response is down to predator size. Impala are prey to a wide range of smaller predators that would not be able to handle a mammal the size of a zebra, so when impala give the call it doesn’t always signal danger for the zebra. However when a zebra, the largest of the three herbivores sounds the alarm, whatever it has seen will probably be able to take down the wildebeest or the impala too so it’s prudent that all three scarper.
It is an interesting reaction and maybe wildebeest hang out with zebra because they are more trustworthy alarmists. I am not sure that the companionship of zebra and wildebeest can be classed as symbiotic I think it is more of an interaction due to a shared habitat but it seems that on some level they can benefit each other.
Whilst we wait for the next batch of Snapshot Serengeti images to be processed and posted up for us to classify I thought I would regale you with a short tail from my recent field work in Namibia. I was based on a cattle farm near to the small town of Otjiwarongo. One of the highlights, apart from the wealth of wildlife living alongside the cattle came as a total surprise. Mushrooms, giant, dinner plate sized tasty mushrooms.
Who would have thought to discover such a delicacy in the thorny scrubby bush of north eastern Namibia, a place normally thought of as desert.
I was out driving the boundaries of the farm with the owners one Saturday morning when they came to an abrupt stop and started reversing backwards. When we stopped they jumped out as if for action crying Omajowa! Thinking this was some Herero word for poacher or something similar I prepared myself for action too following them towards a very tall termite mound.
Omajowa were no poachers, they were giant mushrooms growing all around the base of the termite mound and according to my hosts, delicious. They expertly plucked a few out to take home for dinner and to share amongst the staff. We ate them cut into large chunks, breaded then fried like a schnitzel. Yes they were a taste to behold I can tell you.
The Ejova (singular, Herero name) or termitenpilz (German Namibian name) is the mushroom species Termitomyces schimperi. Termitomyces species are found over much of West, East and Southern Africa and live in association with various termite species.
In Namibia omajowa are found on the mounds of the termite Macrotermes michaelseni that build very tall mounds reaching heights of 5 meters tall. It has been noted that these often incline to the north.
The termites cultivate the fungus by providing a perfect substrate and perfect microclimate for the fungus to grow whist eliminating any competitors to the fungus. In return the fungus helps break down plant material aiding the efficient uptake of nutrients for the termites as well as providing additional food sources from its own body that are rich in nitrogen.
The omajowa, like most fungus is for the most part concealed away below ground but when conditions are right, in this case after a good rainfall between December and March the more familiar fruiting body emerges from the base of the termite mound growing on a stalk up to 50cm high with a cap that can reach 40cm diameter. Usually in groups of 5 to 10 up to 50 on one termite mound have been recorded in Namibia. They are really quite a sight.
From a cultural perspective they are seen by Namibians as a symbol of growth and prosperity and they are eagerly sought out. It is not unusual to see someone standing on the road side hefting one of these giants up in the air in an invitation to stop and buy from him.
Once pulled from the ground they have a strangely alien appearance with the dangling pseudorhiza (root like structure) still attached, though it is probably more ecologically sound to leave most of the pseudorhiza behind. The termites will feed on this and the remaining fungus will carry on growing to pop up another year. Like everything in nature, sustainable thoughtful use should be practiced in order preserve the delicate balance of life.
Those of you who follow our Facebook page will have seen recently that Meredith Palmer, one of Snapshot Serengeti’s scientists and PhD candidate with Minnesota University just published a paper in African Journal of Ecology with the catchy title;
Giraffe Bed and Breakfast: Camera traps reveal Tanzanian yellow-billed oxpeckers roosting on their large mammalian hosts.
The paper highlights one of the more unusual behaviour traits documented by our cameras and discovered by our classifiers of yellow-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus africanus) roosting on giraffe at night time.
Those of you that have been with us a while may have had the pleasure of finding one of these night time images of giraffe with oxpeckers tucked up safe and snug between their back legs. In fact I wrote a blog about this back in 2014.
Two species of oxpecker are found in the Serengeti, the red-billed and the yellow-billed oxpeckers. Whilst the red-billed will feed from a wide range of hosts from impala and wart hog to hippos the yellow-billed oxpecker is more discerning and prefers large hosts such as buffalo, eland and giraffe. The problem with this choice is that these animals are far roaming and if the birds were to find trees to roost in at night, and these can be sparse in the Serengeti, the yellow-billed oxpecker could struggle to locate its host the following morning. It seems they have overcome the problem by staying over on the hosts. What’s more is these clever birds have opted for the premium rate rooms where they are not disturbed during the night for, as is well documented, giraffe almost never lay or sit down at night time preferring to stay upright.
So although during the day yellow-billed oxpeckers are found on several large mammal hosts most of the night time images are of giraffe roosts. It seems they also have a preference for the groin area of the giraffe. It is not hard to imagine that this would be the warmest safest spot on the giraffe, the cavity created where the two hind legs meet is spacious enough to accommodate a small flock of birds and of course is also very attractive to ticks so if they fancied a mid-night snack…..
It is these unexpected discoveries that make the project so exciting and worth all our effort in taking part so next time you are racing through the classifications take a little time to have a closer look at the images, you never know what is waiting to be discovered.
If you want to read more about Meredith’s paper you can read the following:
So the new Snapshot Safari base camp for Snapshot Serengeti is a month old and teething problems aside all seems to be going well. I just wanted to take this opportunity to welcome all our new classifiers and to say a big thanks to all our old classifiers who have stuck with us. But most of all a massive thank you to our moderators who have worked so hard to make the transition run so smoothly. They have answered all your questions and queries without my back up due to the unfortunate timing of my own African field trip falling during the launch of Snapshot Safari.
It is not the first time Snapshot Serengeti has seen a big change. Some of you may remember its first outing as Serengetilive back in 2011. In those days things where a lot slower, you started classifying by first choosing an individual camera and working through it. There was an option to skip images, leaving them for someone else. Of course what ended up happening was all the hard to identify images and all the no animal grassy images were left to the end so that some people never got the chance to classify any animals.
We then progressed, in 2012, onto the Zooniverse platform and saw a huge change to the way things worked. Suddenly there was a lot more interaction between the scientists and the community. This was when the famous algorithms where developed by Margaret Kosmala and Ali Swanson and their team to act as a fail proof to anyone incorrectly identifying images.
We are all very grateful for their hard work and dedication that results in us classifiers being confident that our guesses won’t mess everything up.
So I hope that you are enjoying this third incarnation of Snapshot Serengeti and can be proud that it has worked so well over the years that it has spawned so many new projects.
My own field trip to Africa is coming to an end this week and I will be back in the land of internet connection. I will then hopefully be bringing you more regular posts and more updates on the project itself and how it is progressing. In the meantime don’t forget to check out our facebook and twitter pages.
Camera-trapping has vastly opened up the possibilities of studying animals in the field in a relatively unobtrusive manner. Leaving a bunch of camera-traps clicking away 24/7 over a long period is generally cheaper than employing researchers to stay in the field providing them with accommodation, food and vehicles.
However it has its drawbacks. Good field skills are only learned over time spent in the field and although field researchers cannot operate 24/7 like the camera-traps they are less impartial observers noticing all kinds of fine details surrounding that which they study.
It is these observations that stimulate and inform new scientific questions and drives the understanding of the world around us. I am not suggesting that the results of camera-trap studies can’t also do this but since the days of the first naturalists it is being in the field that nurtures the very interest in studying wildlife in the first place.
The researcher who knows their study area well will be at an advantage to one who has planned from afar after using GIS. I know because I have been both. My first camera-trap project was on a reserve where I had lived for three years and that helped me know intuitively where I should place my camera-traps. On the other hand my latest project involved a very fine time window and I had to set up camera-traps on an unknown farm within two days of arriving. By the end of the 8 week period I was just starting to get a better feel for the place and could have kicked myself for not placing my cameras in the optimum places. When I went back to collect the cameras I found myself wading thigh high through a carpet of small yellow daisy-like flowers that left me coated waist down in a yellow stain. Had I have known the farm better realised this plant grew only in a few areas and could have avoided it entirely and saved myself the turmeric skin wash and a lot of miss-triggers.
My latest trip to Africa reminded me of why living in the field is so rewarding. Whilst the camera-traps are diligently collecting your data it gives you the chance to observe without frantically thinking of your research question, you can take time to take inspiration from the broader environment.
Near my tent was an old dead knob thorn tree that had five white-browed sparrow-weaver nests hanging like straw balls from it. Each night at dusk a pair of sparrow weavers would fly into the tree, call loudly as if claiming the spot and the female would dive into her preferred nest. The male would remain up high above waiting. Just as the last light was fading 3 or 4 small dark shapes would arrive and the sparrow weaver would chase after them squawking disapproval. Having seen them off he would come back and settle himself into the nest of his choice retiring for the night. Watching closely revealed, a few minutes later, the return of the invaders; two pairs of black-faced waxbills. They alighted at the top of the tree and cautiously made their way down towards the remaining nests finally one by one slipping quietly into the unused nests one couple per nest.
The thing about this little drama was that it was played out every night for over two months. None of the birds seemed to alter their routine and none where actively breeding at the time, they just had their bed time ritual. This was the kind of observation that the camera-traps will never quite capture as well as a human. In just the same way, although Snapshot Serengeti would not exist without the cameras it would be nothing without the human, citizen scientists behind the scenes sorting out the images. Even with computer recognition programs on the horizon I believe it would be foolish not to still use humans who’s innate sense of life will always pick up on something that is slightly odd, unusual or different about an image.
Most people these days know what a hashtag is and it can be a powerful tool in terms of searching for like content on social media. Here at Snapshot Safari hashtags are useful to find unusual sightings and to search for images of specific animals. Having said that, used wrongly or overly zealously hashtags can become a nightmare. This guide is to help you know when to hashtag and when not to hashtag.
When not to hashtag
If you are not 100% sure of the identification of an animal then don’t hashtag. This is important as moderators spend a lot of time trying to get you to correct your wrong tags and it is counter-productive to the usefulness of hashtags for searching if the searches come back with wrong images. You can still flag the image for discussion where moderators will hashtag it if deemed necessary.
It is not necessary to hashtag every image you flag for discussion. Try and be selective and choose unusual images or those with some scientific relevance. Think what might be useful to the scientists or other citizen scientists.
Don’t give one image more than one hashtag. Labeling #wildebeast #wildebeastfrolicking #wildebeastresting all for one image is not helpful. Stick to using one basic description.
When to hashtag
Use a hashtag when you discover something rare or unusual; for instance a night image of giraffe with oxpeckers roosting on it, or a large pride of lions with young cubs.
Hashtag images you think are particularly impressive in terms of photographic quality. Hashtagging every image of wildebeest migrating is not necessary but if you find one image that has the wildebeest lit with a stunning backlight then go ahead and let us know.
The main message here is to think before you hashtag, why am I tagging this image?, does it really warrant it? Use them sparingly. If in doubt, leave it out.