Archive | February 2013

The Refrigerator

About a year ago, we received a very generous donation from James Brundidge at the TV Channel Nova that allowed to a) upgrade our solar power to support a refrigerator, and b) buy a refrigerator! Granted, it took several months (6?) to actually get the fridge, get the power, and get everything working – but by the time I left Serengeti last year, we had a fridge!! And a freezer. We made ice cubes! Ice cubes!!!

[These are the things that are exciting in the field. Sorry.]

See, before the fridge (and, more importantly, the freezer), our food was kind of limited. With someone traveling to “town” (Arusha – 6-12 hours away depending on the number of breakdowns and punctures) only once every 8 weeks or so, meat and fresh veggies and other delicacies (crackers, milk, cheese…) were a little hard to come by. Meat is wicked expensive here, so we don’t eat it a lot anyway, but beans and ‘soya chunks’ (meat flavored soy mince) gets old. Really. Old. So every two months, when someone came back from town, our meat menus (say, twice a week) would go something like this:

First day from Arusha: Chicken! Also, all the leafy greens, as they go off in about 2 days. Cheese.

Rest of Week 1: Any other meat (pork chops) we might have gotten, all the remaining leafy greens.  Peppers, tomatoes, and carrots, as they start going quick if on the shelf.  More cheese.

Week 2: Minced beef. Cut off the green bits and cook for several hours in spices to hide the taste. Cut off the moldy bits on the peppers & tomatoes. Finish the cheese (not because it’s going bad, but because it is just that delicious).

Week 3: Bacon & Sausages. They seem to last longer than the fresh meat. They don’t even turn green! I’d rather not think about why. Salvage what’s possible from the peppers. Cabbage.

Weeks 4-8:  It’s back to only beans & ‘soya chunks’ (flavored fake meat), rice, and potatoes, and cabbage. At this point we start looking for reasons why we desperately need to go into Arusha…

So. Needless to say, the refrigerator was life-altering. The cheese still disappears by week 1.5 because a certain Swede [Daniel!] eats little else until it’s gone, but everything else has changed. No more green meat. No more warm beer. No more powdered milk. Now when I get home after a long day, I have cold beer. Among other things. Life doesn’t get much better than that.

Epilogue: It is now week 4. Somehow, all of our vegetables, cheese and 99% of our meat have been consumed…by a week ago.  I’m sure we need to go to Arusha for something…


And the winner is …

Surprisingly, the easiest animal to identify is the PORCUPINE. Of all porcupine images in Season 4, only two classifications were wrong. Here are the rankings for the top ten, along with the percentage correct for each animal.

Rank Animal Percent Correct
1 Porcupine 99.4%
2 Human 99.2%
3 Ostrich 98.3%
4 Giraffe 97.1%
5 Elephant 97.0%
6 Zebra 95.9%
7 Hippopotamus 95.1%
8 Guinea fowl 92.1%
9 Wildebeest 91.9%
10 Spotted hyena 91.2%

TV Coverage of the Lion Project and Snapshot Serengeti (updated)

UPDATE: You can now watch the report online. There is also a “web extra” report on the  Lion House facilities.

Chris Egert, who wrote our blog post yesterday, will air a report this Monday on KSTP 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS at 10 pm Central (US) time. Here’s a sneak peek:


A Snapshot, on Snapshot Serengeti

Today’s guest blog is by Chris Egert, a reporter and anchor with KSTP 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

If you regularly read this blog, you know that there are some very hard working people behind the Snapshot Serengeti project. You know they have a great sense of purpose, and at times a great sense of humor. Both those qualities serve one well in Africa, where things run at their own pace.

We are a television news crew who visited recently from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Turns out, we were the first media in the world to see the Snapshot Serengeti setup in person. That gave us some unique perspective of the human element that makes this operation run every day.

What we are talking about is people like Ali Swanson. She regularly blogs on this site, and is one of the main engines that drives Snapshot Serengeti. You see her personality reflected on these pages from time to time as she talks about driving the hunk of junk Land Rover that is her office for half the year. But what you can’t get from a blog post is the energy this Ali brings the University of Minnesota’s Lion House. She drives around the wilderness all day servicing the hundreds of cameras you see on Snapshot Serengeti, then comes home after a long day, hangs up a punching bag, and proceeds to pummel it with kicks for 45 minutes.

Ali and

Ali and Daniel

If Ali were in the United States, we would compare her to the Energizer Bunny, the character created by a battery company that keeps going, and going, and going. However, there aren’t any pink bunnies wandering around this desolate place, they’d likely be devoured by one of the wild animals that roam this land. Wild animals that often wander right up to the front porch of this research lab, with no regard for the humans who regularly occupy this structure.

One morning as we walked outside to use the “bathroom” out behind the Lion House, there were several baboons running around. The boys from Minnesota promptly turned around and went back inside. Ali, fearless as usual, threw the door open and jaunted out to do her business. This is the same girl who drove 8 hours by herself in a Land Rover to their research lab near Seronera, while we took a 2-hour airplane ride.

Africa 2013 027

The “Bathroom”

One thing we could provide for Ali, Daniel Rosengren, and Stanslaus Mwampeta, the regular residents of Lion House, was fresh supplies. We came bearing gifts of cheese and meat. Something they don’t get to eat very much around here. Up until we arrived, Daniel and Stan had been eating rice and canned green beans for the last several weeks. Daniel and Stan were overjoyed to have some real food. They were also very happy to cook for their guests. We planned on eating granola bars the whole time, but were pleasantly surprised to get a warm meal at the end of the day.

Up until recently, the Lion House didn’t have a reliable fridge. They drink rainwater that is collected in huge tanks around the property. The water is boiled, filtered, and safe to consume. Although from time to time they say a dead monkey ends up in the tank, which as you can imagine is a real bummer. Sure, they are living a dream job, but it sure as heck isn’t easy. I will leave most the gory details out when it comes to the outhouse; except for one great bathroom related story that sums up how one survives in these parts.

After a long day of traveling for Ali, she was eager to catch up with her friends, so we sat around, and talked, and laughed into the early morning hours. Daniel shared stories of his bicycle rides from his native Sweden to the southern tip of Africa. He told us about the time he was attacked with a machete, and rode in a bus for days just to find a doctor.

Stan told us more about his native land of Tanzania. It is amazing to think that Stan is one of only a few people who live here who actually gets to see the wildlife. Lions, elephants, and giraffes are typically reserved for researchers and rich tourists, not the natives. Stan has a great smile, and he loves sweets.

In the midst of this mind-bending mix of brainy conversation about ecology and how it relates to the Serengeti, someone had to use the facilities. That someone was me … and I won’t lie, I was terrified to walk to the outhouse at 1 am, a 100-yard trip where one regularly encounters wildlife.

Nature called, so I grabbed the flashlight and headed out. Ali and Daniel assured me there was nothing to worry about. Things worked out – so to speak – and I peeked through the outhouse to make sure Simba wasn’t waiting to turn me into a late-night snack. (Lions rarely attack on the Serengeti, but one’s imagination runs wild in this environment.)

The coast was clear, so I went to head back, and race-walked to the lab.

Then, as I rounded the corner, I saw it. The furry golden mane of a lion, feet from my face! Knowing well enough not to panic, I quickly shuffled back around the corner and caught my breath. Then it dawned on me that something was strange. Flashlights typically reflect in the eyes of animals, but in the second I saw the lion, I don’t remember seeing a reflection.

I peeked my head back around the corner at Simba, and realized that I’d been had. Daniel and Ali decided to give me a little Serengeti hazing by pulling a life-sized stuffed lion out of the house, and putting it in my path back from the outhouse.

Africa 2013 069

Fabio, the prank lion

Vehicles break down. Hyenas eat your equipment. Monkeys break into your kitchen. Spitting cobras occasionally sneak into your sleeping quarters. And if you can’t laugh about it you won’t last long here… just ask anyone who has spent time on the Serengeti.

Africa 2013 070

Fabio and Chris

Top Ten Easy Animals

Here are the top ten animals that are the easiest to identify in Snapshot Serengeti. Which one takes the prize for easiest? Take the poll. I’ll post the answer next week.

Read on to see how I determine the “easiness” rankings.

Read More…


I arrived in Serengeti on January 24. It’s been more than a little crazy since then. But I thought you might like to see what home looks like. Karibu lion house!

This is our office. Living room. Dining room. Everything. This is home.


Our “gym.” Taken down for rain and hyenas. Also doubles as our porch on which to enjoy sundowners and the view. Notice the rain tank in the background. Constant battle to keep the baboons from opening the tanks.


Stan making replacement antennas in the “shop”.


Daniel entering data. We don’t have a lot of chairs.


Me trying to get internet on the USB modem.


Fabio. Our guard lion.  Sometimes when the baboons are bad we put him on the porch to scare them away. (It used to work…)


Arnold, getting ‘dressed’ for the field. Mud ladders and wood blocks to stack mud ladders on. Shovel and pick-axe to dig out places to put mud ladders.  And of course, a tow-rope, for when none of the above can get me un-stuck from mud or a pig-hole or an overly-ambitious river crossing…


Oh! Right. I almost forgot. Here is our bathroom. The walk seems a LOT longer in the dark…


Brown Hyena

Today’s guest blogger is Lucy Hughes, an undergraduate working with us since “Serengeti Live” (Snapshot’s predecessor). Lucy lived and worked on a private nature reserve in South Africa for four years, carrying out field research that included a camera-trap study into the reserve’s leopard population and twice monthly bird surveys for Cape Town University’s Birds in Reserves Project (BIRP).

Brown Hyena !!! The shout went up so loud I don’t think I really had need to pick up the radio and call head office with the news. The news being I had just got around 30 camera-trap images of a brown hyena polishing off the remnants of a waterbuck carcass followed by several shots of a rather disgruntled looking leopard whose meal I suspect it had originally been. This was news because in the 20 something year history of the reserve no one had ever spotted a brown hyena. The camera-traps had done it again; they had shown us something we didn’t know!

brown hyena

The brown hyena replaces the striped hyena as you move from eastern to southern Africa. Larger than its striped cousin, it rivals the spotted hyena in size and has a rather shaggy appearance, looking more dog-like. It is, like its Serengeti striped counterpart, a tantalisingly elusive creature with few sightings in the surrounds of my study area, South Africa’s Lowveld. In fact, in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, it has been hotly debated for years as to whether they are even present in the park — that is, until a camera trap study finally came up with concrete evidence of their existence there.

This is the beauty of camera traps. They lay there in the bush performing tirelessly capturing image after image, both mundane and exceptional. Admittedly pictures of impala and zebra passing by are not hugely thrilling even though they give us valuable insight into the ecology of these animals and are the mainstay of any research project. Every once in a while though a camera-trap captures something truly remarkable and this is every researcher’s magic moment. The thrill that pulses through you when you click from one repetitive shot to something totally unexpected is addictive. Some of you have probably experienced it when working through the snapshot Serengeti data. Camera-traps are wonderful tools that help researchers gain valuable insight into the animal world with minimal human disturbance and their place in the field will continue to grow.

As for my brown hyena, in two years he passed through the study area on average once every four months turning up in every corner. (It was a tiny study area compared with the Serengeti.) A camera-trap even captured a brown hyena using its anal gland to paste a blade of grass. Unfortunately we never knew how many individuals used the area as it was outside the realms of our study, but this side track from our leopard survey shows what a powerful tool a camera-trap is. You never know what the pictures might tell you about the wildlife in your area, be it your target species or one of the many others that make up the ecosystem.

Better with Practice

This week, I’ve been starting to think about how to approach those “hard to figure out” images. Now, of course, some of them are going to be impossible images – those that are so far away or close or off the edge that even an expert could not accurately identify the species in them.  But some of them are just tricky images that an expert could identify, but would be difficult for someone just starting out with Snapshot Serengeti to figure out.

So here’s a thought: do Snapshot Serengeti volunteers get better at classifying over time? If so, then we should see that, on average, volunteers who have classified more images have a higher batting average than those who have classified fewer images. And if that’s the case, maybe we could use this information to help with the “hard to figure out” images; maybe we could take into account how experience a volunteer is when they classify one of these tricky ones.

To see if volunteers get better at classifying with more experience, I took the data from Season 4 that I’ve written about the past couple weeks, and looked at how well volunteers did based on how many Season 4 images they had classified. Of course, this isn’t perfect, as someone could have gotten a lot of experience with Seasons 1-3 and only just done a little bit on Season 4. But I’m going to assume that, in general, if someone with a lot of early-on experience came back to do Season 4, then they did a lot of images in Season 4, too.

And here’s the answer: yes, volunteers do get better with experience. (Click on it to make it bigger.)


What you see above is called a box plot. On the left side is the percentage of images that were classified correctly. A 1.00 would be perfect and 00.0 would be getting everything wrong. Then you see nine rectangles going across. Each of these is called a box. The key line to look at in these boxes is the one that crosses through the middle. This line shows the median score. Remember that the median score is the score of the person in the very middle of the line if we were to line up everyone by how well they did. (Want to learn more about box plots?)

I’ve divided volunteers into these nine boxes, according to how many classifications they made. The number of classifications is written sideways at the bottom. So, for example, the leftmost box shows the scores of people who made 9 to 16 classifications. You can see that as the number of classifications gets bigger (as we go from left to right on the graph) the scores go up. Someone who does just 14 classifications gets 12 of them right, on average, for a score of 86%. But someone who does 1400 classifications gets 1300 of them right on average, for a score of 93%.

Finally, the purple dashed line shows the average score of all the anonymous volunteers – those that don’t create a user name. We know that these volunteers tend to do fewer classifications than those who create accounts, and this graph shows us that volunteers who create user names score better, on average, than those who don’t.

On a completely different note, if you haven’t seen it already, Rob Verger wrote a really nice piece on Snapshot Serengeti over at the Daily Beast. I recommend checking it out.

Or, read on for details on how I made this graph.

Read More…

Kila siku ni kitu.

Every day it is something.

I feel like we all say that a lot here. A lot.

Don’t get me wrong – I love fieldwork. I really do. But sometimes… sometimes I just wish that things would…well…go as planned. For example, let me tell you how it came to be that I am sitting here writing this blog post instead of checking cameras. It is only 9:30 in the morning, but the day already feels long. If you ever wonder how a field-based PhD can take SO long, read on.

Up at 6, I’ve checked Arnold’s oil, water, brake and clutch fluid, shocks, coil springs, tires, and given the fan casing a good solid knock to scare away any pimbis (hyrax) that think it is a good hiding place. Tightened my mud-ladders. Replaced the aerial antennae (which I had removed to get to cameras in really dense bush) – I’d like to remark that tightening the aerial is no easy feat, but it gives us wicked biceps. Packed 4 days of camping supplies, and enough batteries, SD cards, locks, lagbolts, etc, to take care of 90 cameras. Found someone to send me more cell phone credit because there’s an excellent chance where I’m going that I will get stuck. Had a 20-minute phone call with a project manager about how the last 6 months of lion data seems to need re-entering. Finally, out the door. With one more knock on the hood to flush out any last, reluctant pimbis (there is, after all, a leopard around), dripping coffee mug hooked to the dashboard, I am off. I make it about 15 minutes down the road before I receive a phone call from a number I don’t recognize. “Hello?” “Yes, hello, how are you?” “Fine. Can I help you?” “Yes. I am a tour driver — one of your researchers is stuck on the road from Naabi since yesterday.” Stan. Right. That explains a lot.

Some back-story. Yesterday I set out for a 2 night camping trip to tackle a whole swathe of hard-to-reach cameras. Season 6 is off to a slow start and I’m anxious to get these cameras checked and refreshed so that they can keep on taking these freakin’ awesome pictures. Around noon I get a call from Stan. His engine and gear-box mountings have come undone (!), and his engine is about to fall out. Right. So I go home (about 2 hours away) and send Norbert, our fundi wa gari (car mechanic) out in Arnold, armed with his arsenal of tools, to rescue Stan. It’s not the end of the world – I can better prepare for a longer camping trip. Charge more batteries, prep more SD cards, make a pot of beans, freeze some water bottles. Okay.

Norbert returns around 7pm with Arnold. No Stan. Strange, but we figure he has gone to the village to watch soccer with friends. His phone is dead, so our texts and calls go unanswered. I am often asleep before he gets home, so it’s not that unusual. In the morning when I wake up, there is still no Stan. Perhaps he just continued on with his original plan to camp that night?

Or not, as it turns out. I am now sitting in Arnold, 2 minutes away from my first camera trap, nodding on the phone with the tour driver.  Stan’s car must have broken down again on the drive home, on one of the many long stretches of road where there is no reception. So. Back to the house, sending Arnold and Norbert off once again on a rescue mission. Now I’m anxious to get online. I need to have a blog posted for Monday, and who knows when I’ll be back from camping at this rate?

So. To the internet. The modem has not worked from Lion House in some time now, and with my car on its way south, I walk the 1 km to the research library, not remembering until I reach the closed doors and the deserted center that…yeah…it’s Saturday. The office is closed. But that’s okay, the guard, Jimmy, let’s me in. He has the biggest smile of anyone I’ve ever seen and asks me if I’ve been wrestling lions because I’m *so* dusty. (Normally I’d wear my ‘office clothes’ for a trip to the library, but right now I’m still in ‘field clothes’ because I am blindly optimistic that I can maybe, just maybe, make it out to the field this afternoon.) And so we have a good laugh. But then the power is off so the internet is off and he doesn’t have the right key to get into some storage room to turn on the inverter. Or something. I know enough Swahili to ask for what I need, but rarely understand what anyone tells me in return. So we sit, and talk about baboons. And whether or not it will be hot today. And how nice it is to have a new petrol station in the park. And a few phone calls later, another guard with another set of keys ambles in, and I hear the faint electrical whirring begin. “You’re ok now?” they ask. The little wi-fi symbol darkens on my computer.

Yes.  I am okay. More than okay. The internet is working, I have a mug of coffee in hand, and I can hear the birds chirping and pimbis plopping onto the roof from the trees above.  Not a bad morning, in the end. And I figure, if you’re going to spend 6 years doing a PhD, this really isn’t a bad place to do it…