Archive | May 2014

Made it to Tanzania!

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I arrived in Kilimajaro airport last week, disembarking in the foothills of the famous peak itself. As you can see, by the time we finally touched down, you could hardly make out the mountain in the darkness. It was a long day (3 connections, 35+ hours) of air travel, followed by a final hour of bus-ride before I made it to Arusha and was picked up by the delightful Susan (of the Savannas Forever organization), whose home I have invaded for the time being.

My luggage, of course, was lost – all of it. Mechanical issues on one of my first flights made the resulting connections more than a bit close (I counted those airport sprints as my daily exercise), so I image my bags were sitting neglected in some corner of the Amsterdam airport for a few days before they eventually made it back to me. Poor Susan had to put up with me smelling pretty ripe in the meantime!

Arusha itself if a fairly busy town, and I’ve spent most of the last week plugging away at my permits and catching up on some reading and writing that has been neglected over the last semester. The permitting is, as anticipated, a fairly slow process. There have been a few almost ridiculous set-backs: the wildlife institution had misspelled my email address, so I was completely unaware that Permit #1 had even been granted (!) and I’m experiencing a few snags getting my fees transferred to the right people. C’est la vie, thankfully, nothing insurmountable as of yet. I’m optimistically hoping to get things sorted out before the next two weeks are up, as I’m dying to get out of civilization and into the real outdoors.

However, it would be a lie to make it seem like completely drudgery out here! I did allow myself to take a short break this weekend and headed up to a nearby reptile park with a Maasai friend I met through Susan. I have a soft spot for the scaly critters and greatly enjoyed the opportunity to handle these gorgeous sand boas:

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(My friend, Lemmy, was not as enthusiastic)

I’m posting mid-week not only to report that my travels ended well, but also for a bit of a self-plug: today is my 24th birthday! Couldn’t ask for a better place to spend it in!

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South Africa, here I come! (cont’d)

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I’d received NSF funding to carry out some research in South Africa.

Well, today, I leave to go do that!

I’m still frantically trying to finish up my dissertation, so this trip is only marginally prepared. I have tickets. I’ve started packing (still have 2 hours before heading to the airport, so I’d say I’m in good shape). I have a note to myself to *remember my computer charger*…

I’m excited (whoo! never been to South Africa!). I’m eager (I LOVE trans-atlantic flights because I get to watch movies for 20 hours straight and disappear into this weird twilight zone where time seems to stand still). I’m stressed (So much to do! Still haven’t finished my 3rd dissertation chapter so will need to work on the plane instead of watching all those crappy movies, darn). Sitting in my living room, surrounded by ziplock bags of socks and underwear, quick-dry field pants, power cords and extra batteries, I feel not-quite-ready for this new adventure — but I know it is going to be amazing and full of discovery nonetheless.

So with that, South Africa, here I come!

 

 

Heading out

Sitting in the airport with my field gear all packed, waiting to embark on the 30+ hours of travel that await as I hop over to Europe and then down to Tanzania! My suitcases are stuffed with everything from duct tape – so much duct tape, it’s not even funny – to pruning shears, sleeping bags to mosquito netting. And snacks, plenty of those. I had to delved into the depths of my closet to dig out some of of my equipment, where it has been languishing since I got back from Guam last year. And I have to confess – I did use this trip as an excuse to splurge on some fancy new gadgets as well. Hello, multitool. How’s it going, camp stove I’ve always wanted!

I believe I’ve mentioned before that this will be my first time in Tanzania. My prior experience in Africa has taken place primarily in South Africa and Namibia – cold, deserty places where I spent almost a year on projects ranging from large herbivore and cheetah conservation to the social behavior of mice. Entering into the “unknown” is giving me a few butterflies, but I’m excited to get out of the office and do some actual hands-on research again. Ali and Margaret have been extremely helpful in my preparations for this trip, especially so with advice on how to navigate the process of obtaining the rest of my field permits. It sounds like my first few weeks will be a distressingly uneventful time in which I hang around the cities filling out paperwork, paperwork, and if I’m lucky, more paperwork. But after that, I hope to have a slew of decent stories to report back on the progress of our project and the the goings-on out in the Serengeti! Wish me luck on my travels, hopefully my next post will be from Tanzania.

Just for fun

I know Mother’s Day was a week ago, but I stumbled across this little gem and thought it was worth posting.  I’m currently frantically prepping for my trip to South Africa, so stay tuned for travel stories soon to come!

 

More on the Melanistic Serval

As Meredith posted the other day, one of our camera traps caught a melanistic serval. Melanism is known across a broad variety of animals, but is particularly prevalent in the cat family. Of 37 known species of cat, at least 13 species have melanistic individuals: the domestic cat, the jungle cat, the leopard, the jaguar, the bobcat, Geoffroy’s cat, the kodkod, the oncilla, the colocolo, the jaguarundi, the Asian golden cat, the marbled cat, and the serval.

Why some individuals are melanistic and why cats are particularly prone to melanism is still a bit of a mystery. It is generally thought that melanism is maladaptive – that is, that individuals with melanism are at a disadvantage because they stand out more than normally colored individuals and so are more likely to be targets of predators and competitors. The consequence is that in populations with a lot of melanism, there ought to be some sort of advantage to offset the disadvantage.

Melanistic serval

One possible explanation for melanism is that cats’ black fur helped keep them warm at higher elevations by absorbing more sunlight. This idea came from the fact that many cat populations with high rates of melanism are found at higher elevations. More recently, there have been studies suggesting that melanistic individuals are more resistant to disease.

There’s not a lot of literature on melanistic servals. But I did find an article in the Journal of East African Natural History that listed the known locations of melanistic serval populations in East Africa. Interestingly, the four main populations with melanism are all highland locations: Mt. Kenya and the nearby Aberdare highlands in Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro and North Pare Mountains in Tanzania. All of these are in the general geographic region of Serengeti National Park, so it’s perhaps not too surprising that melanistic servals are there too. What is unusual is that the Serengeti is not a highland.

MelanisticServalOur long-term Serengeti experts, with their decades of experience in the Serengeti, are surprised by the melanistic serval snapped by our cameras. David Bygott says that he’s never heard of a melanistic serval in the Serengeti, and Craig Packer says that while he’s seen melanistic individuals of other animals up on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater (a highland), he’s never seen a melanistic serval anywhere. So this Snapshot Serengeti image is likely the only documented evidence of melanistic serval in the Serengeti.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Yesterday was Mother’s day here in the US and Canada. So in honor of moms of all shapes, sizes, and fur color, here’s a collection of Snapshot Serengeti “family photos.”

 

Here mom, let me get that for you…

 

Teenagers. Er, um, pretty much all lions.

 

Going for a meal…

 

Wobbly baby eland!

 

Too cute for words…

 

Owch.

 

Oh the cuteness… the cuteness is unbearable.

More results!

As I’m writing up my dissertation (ahh!), I’ve been geeking out with graphs and statistics (and the beloved/hated stats program R). I thought I’d share a cool little tidbit.

Full disclosure: this is just a bit of an expansion on something I posted back in March about how well the camera traps reflect known densities. Basically, as camera traps become more popular, researchers are increasingly looking for simple analytical techniques that can allow them to rapidly process data. Using the raw number of photographs or animals counted is pretty straightforward, but is risky because not all animals are equally “detectable”: some animals behave in ways that make them more likely to be seen than other animals. There are a lot of more complex methods out there to deal with these detectability issues, and they work really well — but they are really complex and take a long time to work out. So there’s a fair amount of ongoing debate about whether or not raw capture rates should ever be used even for quick and dirty rapid assessments of an area.

Since the Serengeti has a lot of other long term monitoring, we were able to compare camera trap capture rates (# of photographs weighted by group size) to actual population sizes for 17 different herbivores. Now, it’s not perfect — the “known” population sizes reflect herbivore numbers in the whole park, and we only cover a small fraction of the park. But from the graph below, you’ll see we did pretty well.

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Actual herbivore densities (as estimated from long-term monitoring) are given on the x-axis, and the # photographic captures from our camera survey are on the y-axis. Each species is in a different color (migratory animals are in gray-scale). Some of the species had multiple population estimates produced from different monitoring projects — those are represented by all the smaller dots, and connected by a line for each species. We took the average population estimate for each species (bigger dots).

We see a very strong positive relationship between our photos and actual population sizes: we get more photos for species that are more abundant. Which is good! Really good! The dashed line shows the relationship between our capture rates and actual densities for all species. We wanted to make sure, however, that this relationship wasn’t totally dependent on the huge influx of wildebeest and zebra and gazelle — so we ran the same analysis without them. The black line shows that relationship. It’s still there, it’s still strong, and it’s still statistically significant.

Now, the relationship isn’t perfect. Some species fall above the line, and some below the line. For example, reedbuck and topi fall below the line – meaning that given how many topi really live in Serengeti, we should have gotten more pictures. This might be because topi mostly live in the northern and western parts of Serengeti, so we’re just capturing the edge of their range. And reedbuck? This might be a detectability issue — they tend to hide in thickets and so might not pass in front of cameras as often as animals that wander a little more actively.

Ultimately, however, we see that the cameras do a good overall job of catching more photos of more abundant species. Even though it’s not perfect, it seems that raw capture rates give us a pretty good quick look at a system.

Giraffe battle

I thought I would share these video clips from my camera trap with you. During my research using camera traps in South Africa I mostly used the picture mode but in the early days when I was trying to figure out what the camera trap was capable of and what was most valuable from my research point of view I messed around with the video option.
From my research perspective it wasn’t that great, I found that the camera was slower to trigger in video mode and so particularly at night I was left with lots of footage of nothing. But from pure interest value it sometimes proved very interesting.
On this occasion I had set up the camera on a sand road hoping to capture the leopard who frequently passed that way leaving its pug marks for all to see. I was pretty sure of capturing the leopard. What I didn’t bank on was getting a full 17 minutes of footage of two giraffe battling it out. Nor was I expecting the unique perspective from which the camera shot the footage. Oh and the leopard never showed. Typical!

I hope you enjoy the following three short clips.