Archive | March 2013

Sequestration, Science, and Snapshot Serengeti

Even if you live outside the U.S., it’s been hard to miss the arrival of the dreaded sequester. However, the impact of sequestration on science research doesn’t get a lot of attention in the general din. The U.S. government funds almost all of the nation’s basic science research, which means science research that doesn’t have an immediate application like creating a new medicine or figuring out how to grow crops to withstand drought.

Much of ecology research is basic. In Snapshot Serengeti, we’re interested in learning how a large assemblage of animals coexist and use the landscape. The results will not have an immediate impact on how the Serengeti is managed, but we hope it will help inform conservation management decisions down the line.

Worth funding?

Most of the nation’s basic research – and much applied research – is being cut by approximately 8%. Now, science funding hasn’t been doing all that well over the past couple decades anyway. And now things are getting worse. Snapshot Serengeti and its parent organization, the Lion Research Center, are mainly funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which announced recently that it will award 1,000 fewer grants this year than anticipated.

You may remember that in January, we were working hard on a grant proposal to keep our cameras rolling past the end of 2012. The way the process works is that each proposal gets evaluated on whether it is good, well-planned, and worthwhile science and either gets recommended for funding or rejected. To give you an idea, in our division of the NSF, 16% of proposals got recommended for funding last year.

But it doesn’t end there. Each year the NSF gets many more good, well-planned, and worthwhile proposals than it can fund. So it ranks them. And then it starts funding them, starting at the top and moving down the list, until it runs out of money. Of the recommended proposals, NSF expected to be able to fund just the top 22% of them this year.

And with sequestration, that pot of available money just got even smaller.

What that means for our proposal isn’t clear yet. If the sequester sticks, then we will be competing for a smaller pot of next year’s NSF money. And even if it doesn’t, we’ll be in tighter competition with all those really good proposals from this year that just missed out on getting funded. In either case, the sequester is bad news for Snapshot Serengeti.


The rain is crazy. Not as windy as yesterday, when it blew our furniture off the veranda, but crazy nonetheless. I could see it coming, not just your typical clouds stretching to the earth in the distance – I could see the waves of water hitting the ground between the scattered trees, moving closer with every second. It was a race – I wanted to reach the valley, with its low profile and scattered trees, before the storm reached me. I know that in a lightening storm, you’re not supposed to seek shelter beneath a tree. But in my giant Landrover, with its 4.5 foot antennae beckoning to the sky, I don’t like being the only blip on the plains. Logical or not. (Comments from lightning experts welcome.)

And so here I am. Somewhere between cameras L05 and L06, hunkered down as the torrents of water wash over Arnold & me. The endless tubes of silicone sealant have done their job – most of me, and most of my equipment, is dry – there are only two leaks in the roof.

The sky is gray for miles – I am done for the day. It’s only 5pm! In wet season, I can normally work until 7pm, and still prep my car for camping before it’s too dark to see. Today feels like one of those cherished half-days from elementary school – not as magical as a snow day, mind you, but exciting nonetheless. Except I am trapped in my car…

So, with that, I open a beer, shake out the ants and grass clippings from my shirt, and hunker down in the front seat to wait out the rain. And to think. I’ve been thinking a lot about trees lately. Mostly what they mean for the how the carnivores are using their landscape.

See, from the radio-collaring data, we know that lions are densest in the woodlands.  Living at high densities that is, not stupid. But the cameras in the woodlands don’t “see” lions very well.  Out on the plains, a lone tree is a huge attractant.  It’s the only shade for miles, the only blip on the horizon.  All the carnivores, but expecially the musclebound, heat-stressed lions, will seek it out.  In contrast, in the woodlands, even though there are more lions, the odds of them walking in front of the one of 10,000 trees that has my camera on it are…slim.


This map is one of many I’ve been making the last week or so. Here, lion densities, as calculated from radiocollar data, are the red background cells; camera traps are in circles, sized proportionally to the number of lions captured there.  As you can see, the sheer number of lions captured in each camera trap doesn’t line up especially well with known lion densities. Disappointing, but perhaps unsurprising.  One camera really only captures a very tiny window in front of it – not the whole 5km2 grid cell whose center it sits in.  One of my goals, therefore, is to use what we know about the habitat to align the camera data with what we know about lion ranging patterns.  I think the answer lies in characterizing the habitat at multiple different spatial scales – spatial scales that matter to the decision-making of a heat-stressed carnivore who sees blips on the horizon as oases of shade. And so I’m counting trees. Trees within 20 meters, 50 meters, 200 meters of the camera. One tree in a thick clump is still pretty attractive if that clump is the only thing for miles. Once I can interpret the landscape for lions, once I can match camera data with what we know to be true for lion ranging, I can be comfortable interpreting patterns for the other species. I hope.

The rain is letting up now, and it’s getting dark. Time to pack the car for camping – equipment on the roof and in the front seat. Bed in the back. And a sunset to watch with beer in hand.


Today’s post is a guest post from Lora Orme, an undergraduate conducting directed research with us at the University of Minnesota.

Hailing from regions of Africa as well as India, the Middle East, and southwest Asia, the caracal prefers a dry habitat such as savanna or woodlands. This preference distinguishes the caracal from its feline cousin, the serval, which primarily lives in wetter climates. The difference encourages the caracal’s more open eating habits; the carnivorous caracal will hunt and consume almost any source of meat that is available, from rodents scurrying across the plains, to monkeys or birds overhead. In fact, the caracal is an expert bird hunter, using its powerful hind legs to leap up to ten feet in the air. That is twice as high as the height of the average human!

The caracal looks like a slightly overgrown housecat, around three feet long when full-grown. It has red-brown hair and very distinct facial markings. But the most distinguishing feature of the caracal is the ear tuft. These tassels of long black hair play an important role in pinpointing prey, working with 20 muscles within the ears themselves. The tufts may also act like little flags that help the caracal communicate with others of its kind. Visually, the tufts make a caracal resemble a lynx. For this and other similarities, the caracal has been nicknamed the “African lynx” or the “desert lynx.” It is important to discriminate, however, that the caracal has no spots or stripes, longer legs, and a slimmer body than the lynx. These characteristics allow the streamlined caracal to be among the fastest small cats.

Because of the caracal’s impressive agility, it was once bred in India as a status symbol and for the sport of bird hunting. Present day caracals are generally known to be elusive and secretive, camouflaging into tall grasses and quickly escaping from sight. However, if wild prey is scarce, caracals have been known to attack livestock and other domesticated animals. Due to the caracal’s natural tendency to hunt, they are sometimes considered pests and shot by ranchers.

Predatory instincts drive the caracal to live a solitary life when not mating. The majority of communication occurs in mews, hisses, and purrs with mates and kin. Even when a pair joins together to mate, the male does not stay to help raise the young. Thus, the female is left to watch over the litter of up to six kittens. She keeps them hidden in a burrow that has been borrowed from the den of an aardvark or porcupine. They stay hidden until they are one to two months of age and begin eating meat alongside their mother. Finally, when they reach about one year of age, they leave her side to begin lives and possibly families of their own.