What we’ve seen so far, Part III
Over the last few weeks, I’ve shared some of our preliminary findings from Seasons 1-6 here and here. As we’re still wrapping up the final stages of preparation for Season 7, I thought I’d continue in that vein.
One of the coolest things about camera traps is our ability to simultaneously monitor many different animal species all at once. This is a big deal. If we want to protect the world around us, we need to understand how it works. But the world is incredibly complex, and the dynamics of natural systems are driven by many different species interacting with many others. And since some of these critters roam for hundreds or thousands of miles, studying them is really hard.
I have for a while now been really excited about the ability of camera traps to help scientists study all of these different species all at once. But cameras are tricky, because turning those photographs into actual data on species isn’t always straightforward. Some species, for example, seem to really like cameras,
so we see them more often than we really should — meaning we might think there are more of that critter than there really are. There are statistical approaches to deal with this kind of bias in the photos, but these statistics are really complex and time consuming.
This has actually sparked a bit of a debate among researchers who use camera traps. Researchers and conservationists have begun to advocate camera traps as a cost-effective, efficient, and accessible way to quickly survey many understudied, threatened ecosystems around the world. They argue that basic counting of photographs of different species is okay as a first pass to understand what animals are there and how many of them there are. And that requiring the use of the really complex stats might hinder our ability to quickly survey threatened ecosystems.
So, what do we do? Are these simple counts of photographs actually any good? Or do we need to spend months turning them into more accurate numbers?
Snapshot Serengeti is really lucky in that many animals have been studied in Serengeti over the years. Meaning that unlike many camera trap surveys, we can actually check our data against a big pile of existing knowledge. In doing so, we can figure out what sorts of things cameras are good at and what they’re not.
Comparing the raw photographic capture rates of major Serengeti herbivores to their population sizes as estimated in the early 2000’s, we see that the cameras do an okay job of reflecting the relative abundance of different species. The scatterplot below shows the population sizes of 14 major herbivores estimated from Serengeti monitoring projects on the x-axis, and camera trap photograph rates of those herbivores on the y-axis. (We take the logarithm of the value for statistical reasons.) There are really more wildebeest than zebra than buffalo than eland, and we see these patterns in the number of photographs taken.
Like we saw the other week, monthly captures shows that we can get a decent sense of how these relative abundances change through time.
So, by comparing the camera trash photos to known data, we see that they do a pretty good job of sketching out some basics about the animals. But the relationship also isn’t perfect.
So, in the end, I think that our Snapshot Serengeti data suggests that cameras are a fantastic tool and that raw photographic capture rates can be used to quickly develop a rough understanding of new places, especially when researchers need to move quickly. But to actually produce specific numbers, say, how many buffalo per square-km there are, we need to dive in to the more complicated statistics. And that’s okay.