Archive | March 2013

Lost in the Mail

I have some sad news. The hard drive carrying Season 5 never arrived in Minnesota. Ali had it sent several weeks ago by postal mail. But not all the world’s mail is quite as reliable as we might hope. The hard drive may be sitting in some office somewhere, lost among piles of boxes. Or someone may have decided that a hard drive would turn a nice personal profit. Whatever happened, we’ll probably never see the hard drive again. Or we might – I once sent a package to a friend in South Africa and gave up on it when it hadn’t arrived after a couple months. But almost a year later, my friend sent me an email thanking me for the package and curious about some rather out-of-date news that I had written her.

But fret not. Ali said she’ll scrounge up another hard drive and load it with Season 5’s photos. She knows of someone traveling to the U.S. in a couple weeks and will ask for the hard drive to be hand couriered. Meanwhile, we’ll all have to sit tight.

The angle on this image makes this kori bustard look huge! I bet this bird could carry our hard drive over the Atlantic…

Since it’s Friday and I can’t leave you with just sad news for the weekend, here are some Serengeti laughing hippos.


Gail, Garth or Gerta? Cataloguing the giraffes of the Serengeti

Today’s guest post is written by Megan Strauss, a researcher at the University of Minnesota. She runs the Serengeti Giraffe Project.

If you had visited the lion research house between 2008 and 2010, in addition to Fabio, the stuffed lion, the mantelpiece full of animal skulls, and the aquarium of incredibly hardy fish, you would have seen this photo of a male giraffe, which I taped to one of the bedroom doors:


For the last few years, I’ve tracked these quiet giants of the Serengeti woodlands, studying their population dynamics, the vegetation they eat, and their interactions with lions and people.

We can learn a lot by keeping track of individual giraffes. Luckily, it turns out that each giraffe is born with a unique set of coat markings that persist throughout life, like human fingerprints or lion whisker spots. So, each field season, I arrived in Serengeti stocked with the materials necessary to catalogue the many giraffes I would encounter: several hundred 5 x 8 index cards, ink cartridges for the printer, sharp scissors, and a good supply of glue sticks. My days in the field often went as follows. Morning and afternoon: meander through the woodlands locating and photographing giraffes. Evenings: work through the day’s photographs, identifying giraffes and making ID cards for any new individuals. For fun, I assigned a different first name to each individual. The female below is named Flopsy, for her deformed right ear:



Among Serengeti giraffes, which belong to the Masai subspecies, coat markings vary from blocky to highly stellate, or star-like. While the patterns do not change, the color of the markings can grow darker as giraffes age, particularly for males. The shape, color and arrangement of the coat markings are all useful for telling apart different individuals. Other traits are useful as well, such as tail length or ossicone size, shape and hairiness. (Ossicone is the name for the bony, skin-covered horns of a giraffe.) I’ve included some giraffe photos below so you can try your hand at giraffe pattern matching. See if you can match the individual on the top row with any of the individuals in the bottom two rows:


Sexing giraffes is usually easy, especially at close range or from photograph. Aside from the obvious, adult males can be distinguished from females by their larger size, skull ossification (the ossicones of males are larger and mature males acquire additional bony skull protrusions) and their more erect posture. Sexing young calves is a bit trickier. The genitals of male calves are small and calves aren’t always willing to pose for the camera.

Here is an example of a mature male giraffe with significant skull ossification:


By the end of my 2010 field season, I’d amassed a catalogue of almost 1,000 giraffes. (Identifying giraffes by eye can be a laborious and error-prone process but Doug Bolger and colleagues at Dartmouth University have now released Wild-ID, software that assists with giraffe pattern recognition.

We are hoping that we can use the plentiful giraffe images coming in from the camera trap study to maintain this giraffe database and to monitor the population. It turns out, though, that many of the camera trap images contain only giraffe legs, which are much harder to use for identification than flanks.


Blast from the past

#### Spent all day yesterday driving from Serengeti *back* to Arusha — nine hours, two punctures and a broken hi-lift jack later, arrived in Arusha sweaty, grimy, and as excited as a human could possibly be about good food. At any rate — with last minute travel preps and a looooong travel day, this blog post got tucked away in the back of my mind until I woke up (well-fed!) this morning. I’m hoping I can appease you all with a blast-from-the-past note-from-the field from my *first ever* trip to Serengeti in 2009. Now I’m off to find a cappuccino. I did mention that 90% of my mental energy out here goes to thinking about food, right? #####


Notes from my first days in Serengeti: I am so stunned I don’t even know what to write.

I am in the Serengeti.

I am smack dab in the middle of a natural phenomenon. In my first 24 hours here, I have seen a dozen things that I can barely pronounce. Impala, Topi, Hartebeest, Buffalo, gazelle. Baboons, Hyraxes, jackals, giraffes, zebra. Elephants, hyenas, lions and leopards. The baboons hang outside our house, like raccoons of Africa, but bigger and more agile…and much, much uglier.

Ingela, one of the field researchers and a spectacularly wonderful woman, reminds us to pull the front door closed lest the baboons invade (this has happened before). She also reminds us to occasionally look up in the tree in the side yard, as it seems to be a favorite rest-stop for a the neighborhood leopard. As I watch a giraffe meander past the outhouse out back, I feel vaguely like I have stepped back in time. Or landed on mars. What is this place? (Answer: AWESOME.)

Over whiskey and chocolates, Phil and Ingela and I discuss the important things in life, such as the following:

Q: What to do if you encounter a lion while on foot?

a)Run screaming

b) Make yourself look really big and menacing

c) back away slowly, maintaining eye contact with the lion, but without tripping. At a “safe distance” turn around to face the direction you are heading, and absolutely do not look back.

d) wave your pot and shout “kakakakakaka.”

Answer: Word on the street is that “c” is textbook correct, but “d” has proven to work after sunrise in the Serengeti. I do not personally know anyone that has attempted a, b, or c and lived to tell the tale. Both Craig and Ingela have survived on variations of d.

I think I’m going to like it here.


Lions and Wolves: Hunting and Conservation

Lion hunting is an active sport in Africa, with wealthy foreigners paying thousands of dollars for a chance to kill a lion and take its skin back home to taxidermy. Done right, lion hunting could benefit the species, by helping to pay for land protection and other conservation measures. However, too often it is done poorly.

For many years, Craig has been actively involved in figuring out how to do lion hunting sustainably. In 2009, he, Ali, and I, and a bunch of others wrote a paper (“Sport Hunting, Predator Control and Conservation of Large Carnivores”) about the pressures and dynamics of hunting large carnivores with a focus on lions and wolves. If you’re not a hunter yourself, you may believe that hunting and conservation are diametrically opposed to one another. But that’s not true; most hunters are also conservationists and many of the strongest wildlife protection laws in our country were championed by hunters. In our paper we explore the complexities that arise when you add the third party: not just hunters and conservationists, but also rural citizens, and particularly ranchers. While hunters want to maintain wildlife (to hunt, and often for other reasons as well), ranchers would be most happy if there were no predators around at all; predators like lions and wolves kill livestock and even threaten rural people. Wildlife managers then have the unhappy task of trying to please all three groups, and they often do so by employing hunters to maintain lower than full capacity predator populations.

Late last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded to a petition to list African lions as endangered species, which would prohibit the importation into the U.S. of lion trophies. This week the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about it, saying that doing so would cripple Tanzania’s ability to protect lions and other wildlife. Our intrepid safari reporter Chris Egert followed up with Craig on KSTP to get his take on the controversy. What do you think? Should the U.S. prohibit the importation of lion trophies? What do you think about hunting as a component of conservation? What can be done to reduce the conflict between large carnivores and the people who live (and tend livestock) near them? These are not questions with easy answers, and I’m curious to hear what Snapshot Serengeti fans think.

Game Plan

Way back in the earliest days, before we had met Zooniverse, Ali, I, and several undergraduates were brainstorming a website. Ali had already put together an interface to enable her assistants to help identify images, and it was successful enough that we knew that a website would work. But her existing interface was not scalable to large numbers of people, and we wanted to get the general public involved. So what to do?

Since we wanted people to stick around on our website for a while, we decided that we ought to embed the animal identification process in a game. We thought about several different game types, including adventure games, ones in which players “collect” the animals they identify, and even puzzle games. Here is a mock screenshot of one adventure game we imagined:


In this one, the idea was that you played as if you were an animal. Here you’re a lion with giraffe and porcupine sidekicks. You’d get a series of challenges based on the life of your character. For example, as a young lion, you’d learn to hunt for food. To do so, you’d identify animals in images and add them to a temporary collection (at bottom right). If enough people agreed with you about the identification, the image would become available to satisfy the challenge. So if the identified animal was a Thomson’s gazelle for instance, you’d be able to cash it in to satisfy the “learn to hunt” challenge. Once you’d accumulated enough prey items, you’d get a new challenge or you could switch to a different character. We envisioned various score metrics – a percent of images identified “correctly”, a count of images identified, and some sort of score that took into account how many challenges you had completed. We also thought about a social component where users could showcase their finds, trade collected animals, and chat with one another.

Of course, there were drawbacks to this sort of game. You’ll notice that there’s no way to indicate the number or behavior of animals in the images, and we hadn’t yet come up with a way to deal with the sets of three images that usually get taken during the daytime. We also worried about perverse incentives: we imagined someone so intent on winning, that they mis-identified images so as to more quickly accomplish the challenges.

It was François Boucher-Genesse who first suggested to us that a game concept might not be necessary. François consults for the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington, which is known for its acclaimed science game Foldit. I had contacted him to understand more about how to design a good science game. But he pointed out that in our case, a game hid the scientific side of the endeavor and played down the usefulness of identifying the images. He pointed out that the images were compelling enough that a game might not be necessary.

Soon afterwards, we were contacted by Jonathan Brier, a social computing researcher who had come across Ali’s original small-scale interface. He introduced us to the Zooniverse. And the rest, as they say, is history.

No post today!

Hi all – sorry, no post today — on two days holiday for the “Royal Bush Wedding” as we’ve dubbed it.

save the date

Felix and Laura are cornerstones of our small Serengeti Community. Congratulations to a wonderful couple, wonderful friends, and two people I couldn’t imagine Serengeti life without.

SuPer Qt, the Super Cute Lion

#### Today’s guest post is from Daniel Rosengren, one of the full-time field researchers on the Serengeti Lion Project. ####

The prettiest lion born in our study area lately got the code name “SPQ”. “SP” because she was born in the Spurs pride and “Q” because that’s the order she was born, starting from A. Fittingly, her more personal name thus became SuPer Qt (Super Cute). One might think that lions all look alike. But SuPer Qt definitely stands out with her striking looks.

The other day I found the still young SuPer Qt together with her mother and another adult female. They were resting in the tall grass, at least the old females were. SuPer Qt sat up scanning the plains around her for anything to eat. Suddenly lightning struck really near. Close enough not to give a thundering sound but a very loud bang. SuPer Qt jumped while the adults didn’t even react.

After the rain passed SuPer Qt spotted two warthogs in the distance and started stalking. She’s young but not too young to participate in hunts. The other females lifted their heads, saw the pigs and followed suit. I drove around in a big semi-circle to get closer without disturbing. The lions were lucky, the hogs walked straight towards them. Then their luck vanished, just like the warthogs down a burrow. At first, the lions seemed confused and looked around widely as they slowly pushed forward. I don’t know what gave the hiding place away but once the lions came within about 15 meters of the burrow they instantly knew the hogs were there.

All lions took turns digging. The two older and more experienced lions dug with more force and determination. SuPer Qt seemed to dig more randomly. Her inexperience showed in more comical ways too. Twice she managed to place herself in a position behind a digging lion, getting her face full of dirt. Another time she circled the burrow and instead of walking around the oldest female she decided to walk under it. Something got SuPer Qt’s attention down the hole and she stood up while still under the old female who got her hind legs air borne. The old female was too busy looking down the burrow to seem to notice. They stood like this for a good while until the old female ungracefully, one leg at the time, managed to get her hind feet on the ground again.


SuperQT getting a face full of dirt


Wrong place, wrong time.

After a long time of digging, the lions finally gave up. They lay down about 20 meters from the hole and rested. Half an hour or so later, the warthogs emerged. They were watched by the lions as they walked away but never had to run for it. The warthogs lived to see another day and must have had a very thrilling time.

Faulty Cameras (video-style)

Ali has written about the beatings that the cameras take, and you’ve likely seen Snapshot Serengeti images tilted at odd angles, or at the sky, or face-down in the dirt.

Every once in a rare while, a camera suddenly switches from “snapshot” mode to “video” mode and instead of taking three pictures, takes ten seconds of video. This video “feature” eats up camera memory very fast and so isn’t good for our research, as we end up running out of memory before we have a chance to re-service the camera. It also doesn’t record any sound.

But the resulting video can be amusing. Here is a series of ten-second clips taken on May 6, 2012. I think I know how the camera got flipped to video mode! Do you?

Running in place

The Red Queen Hypothesis in evolutionary biology describes an arms race between predators and prey that leaves each party running as fast as they can just to stay in place. Sometimes I feel a little bit like I am caught in this race with my cameras and the various creatures that maul, munch, or invade them. Granted, the animals aren’t evolving or learning new tricks to overcome each new defense, but it seems that as soon as I conquer one source of damage, something new appears. I thought you might be interested to see the “evolution” of my camera trap weaponry over the last few years.

June 2010

Perhaps I should have known better. But the naked cameras that I set up during my 2009 pilot season alongside Panthera’s indefatigable Philipp Henschel didn’t get destroyed en masse.  So I was completely unprepared for the destruction that followed. 90 cameras lost in 6 months to hyenas, ele(phant)s, and fire.


naked camera.

Just some of the many casualties. Photo taken by Daniel Rosengren.

Just some of the many casualties. Photo taken by Daniel Rosengren.

 Feb 2011

I returned to Serengeti armed with 200 pounds of steel cases. This made my luggage rather unpleasant.


steel cases. camo color means you can’t see them, right?

Unfortunately, the straps we used to attach the cameras to trees were crap, and still broke with a quick tug from hyena or elle.


ele trunk, up close!

April 2011

Power tools! Rich Howell at Trail Cam Pro sent me out a super fancy Bosch impact driver and hundreds of steel lagbolts. I spent the next 3 months playing with power tools.

Unfortunately, the 3” lagbolts still broke if tugged on solidly by an ele. Cameras were wrestled from their cases by baboons and really determined hyenas. They were stolen by poachers and Masaai who herded their cattle across the border from NCA. They got waterlogged in the heavy rains. Cases were not quite the panacea I had hoped for.

January 2012

I arrived in Serengeti with 5” lagbolts of the best grade steel I could find. And padlocks. And dessicant sacks to keep the cameras dry. Now the cameras were staying on the trees, but getting punctured by teeth, invaded by ants, and waterlogged by the rains. “Water resistant” apparently doesn’t mean a whole lot in the world of ScoutGuard…nor does “manufacturer warranty.” And I still don’t understand how bugs get inside a “water resistant” camera that has no obvious damage.


Not entirely sure what happened here…

January 2013

I armed myself with more padlocks, more lagbolts, and 6 tubes of silicone sealant. My luggage was filled with new cameras, grimly awaiting their doom. I can replace punctured flash covers with clear plastic. Sensor covers are another story, and apparently it is impossible to buy replacements. We’ll see how well the silicone works to fend off ants and raindrops.

Next up? Spikes! I’m going to weld bits of steel to the camera case so that hyenas can’t get their maws around them. Take that, you big, ugly puppies!

Friday Favorites

In case you’re not aware of it, Snapshot Serengeti is still live. (Or I should say, live again, as it was down for a few days following the completion of Season 4.) The pictures up now are all from Season 4, but the ones of nothing but grass have been removed. So every picture should have something to see in it. We are still recording all the classifications that are made, so your classifications still count.

However, we think we have enough classifications for Season 4 to be able to get science out of it. So if you’re looking to really make an impact science-wise, try out one of the other Zooniverse projects. My personal favorites are Seafloor Explorer and Old Weather. (But if you’re really just loving the fuzzy animal pix, we understand if you want to hang out on Snapshot.)

Ali tells me that Season 5 is in transit! A hard drive with hundreds of thousands of images is somewhere between Arusha, Tanzania, and Saint Paul, Minnesota. We’ll be working on it soon to get it ready for you to classify.

Meanwhile, here are some lovely snapshots to tide you over: