Archive | August 2017

Small Cats of the Serengeti

 

Whilst we all love to see lion, cheetah and leopard, the big cats of the Serengeti, their smaller cousins are fairly elusive. I am referring to caracal, serval and wildcat. These three small cats manage to slink around between the large carnivore guild keeping themselves to themselves. Lion cheetah and leopard not to mention hyena will all kill small cats. Despite their diminutive size their larger cousins still see them as competition and threat. All three are solitary cats and to survive in this very competitive world they each have their own niche.

 

Caracal

The largest of the small cats, females weigh in at around 10kg and males up to 19kg. They are found across Africa, Arabia and parts of India preferring drier habitats such as savannahs, steppes and dry woodland. The caracal is a magnificent hunter. It is extremely powerful for its size and is able to take down prey as large as small antelope like duiker and bushbuck. The bulk of their diet is made up of hares, rodents, hyraxes and antelope but they are renowned for their ability to leap into the air to catch flushed birds. Their back legs are longer than their front legs and are endowed with powerful muscles that enable them to burst upwards and snag flying birds.

This cat is uniformly coloured the bulk of its body ranging from a tawny grey to a brick red with some spotting restricted to its pale cream underbelly and chin. Its most distinguishing feature is its black tufted ears and black facial markings as well as a short stubby tail that put one in mind of a lynx. It is in fact not related to the lynx family at all.

 

Serval

Probably the most easily recognised of the three and the most commonly encountered of the cats on Snapshot Serengeti. These exquisite little animals are restricted to the African continent south of the Sahara across savannahs, marshes and forest edges particularly near water courses where tall grassy plants grow.

The serval weighs between 6 and 13 kg with males being larger than females. Proportionate to its size it has the longest legs of any cat species and along with its elongated neck and large pointy ears makes this cat unmistakeable. Its tawny coat is spotted black; these spots may run into bars on its neck, shoulders or legs. Melanistic (all black) morphs are known and we have been lucky enough to capture this rarer variation on Snapshot camera-traps.

Food wise these cats are small mammal specialists stalking prey through long grass locating their prey by sound and then using their long legs to leap into the air and strike prey in a fox like manner. They have very flexible toes and will hook fish and amphibians out of water as well as mammals from burrows. The bulk of their diet consists of small rodents under 200g but they will take reptiles, amphibians, birds and small antelope.

 

Wildcat

These cats are smaller than the other two, heavily resembling a domestic cat it is found throughout Africa, Asia and Europe. They weigh between 2 and 6kg and like the caracal and serval males are heavier than females. Apart from size the appearance of the sexes in all three cats is very similar and show little dimorphism.

Its coat is highly variable in colour and pattern ranging from grey brown to red. Dark spotting tends to appear towards the rump, down the tail and on the legs which often bleed into each other appearing more like dark stripes.

It is perhaps more of a generalist than the other two small cats and takes a wide variety of small prey with rodents making up the bulk of its diet. Birds are less frequently taken but insects have been identified as an important part of the diet. Its method for hunting is more familiar to us than the stalk and pounce of the caracal and serval. It will locate prey by sight or sound and then silently creep towards it by slinking belly to the ground before pouncing at the last minute. We have probably all witnessed a domestic cat stalking like this.

 

Of course once you are familiar with these three cats it is easy to tell them apart, that is if you are lucky enough to get a good daytime or colour image. Although serval are seen out in the day caracal and wildcat are less frequently active during daylight and all three mostly hunt at night. It can be harder to tell one from the other in a black and white night image but the trick is to concentrate on the shape. Does it have outsized ears, long legs and obvious spots (serval) or a rounded head on powerful shoulders and ears with tufts (caracal) or does it really remind you of the proportions of a domestic cat (wildcat). Like always make your best guess and perhaps post on the descussions page for more help.

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Progress and stuff

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Some of you will have noticed that our progress bar on season 10 has not been showing any progress. Well it turns out that we have made loads of progress, it’s just the bar that was not getting anywhere.

The good folks at Zooniverse have fixed it for us and you will now see we are about half way through season 10 which is fantastic. There are just under 700 000 images to classify this season so thanks to you, are dedicated team of citizen scientists we have around 350 000 left to go. That’s 350 000 chances of finding that one image you have been waiting for. I have noticed recently lots of you posting on talk that you have classified your first ‘waterbuck’ or ‘serval’. If you haven’t discovered your dream find yet there is still time and yes there is a season 11 in the wings.

Whilst on the subject of talk I wanted to gently remind everyone of a few etiquette points.

#Hashtags, love ‘em or hate ‘em they are part of social media and they are not going away. On Snapshot Serengeti we use them for a specific reason and that is to help others to search for and find certain images.

If you have found a great image that you think others will want to see and you are certain of the species then go ahead and hashtag it, but, if you find an image that you are not sure of then please don’t hashtag it with your guess. You can still put the pictures up in talk for discussion and perhaps someone else will be along who is positive about the id and can then hashtag it. Basically, please use hashtags thoughtfully.

Which brings me to another point; if you can’t identify an image and you post it up for discussion always give us your best guess. No one will laugh; it’s what makes it fun seeing what other people make of the images when you are really stumped. Many a time I have confidently shared a tricky image almost certain for instance it’s a long sort after rhino only to have someone else’s eyes point out that if I look a bit closer that actually it is a rock! Even our expert modifiers get things wrong occasionally and are reluctant to confidently make a call on certain images. Some of them are just so darn impossible to id. So just give it your best shot, it’s what everyone else does.

The main aim is to enjoy yourself, challenge yourself and use other peoples experience when yours fails you. The Snapshot family of classifiers and moderators is a dedicated and knowledgeable bunch and as I have said before, this project would not exist without you all. Keep up the great work one and all.

World Lion Day

 

Lion image from the Chauvet replica Cave

 

World lion day was set up to raise awareness of the conservation issues facing lions today. The African lion, listed by the IUCN as vulnerable, and the Asiatic lion listed as endangered are facing the triumvirate threats of habitat loss, human conflict and poaching.

Most of you who read my blogs will probably be aware of the threats and today there will be some really informative media pieces out there on the web if you are not penned by the world’s leading lion conservation organisations.

I thought instead that I would concentrate on the other side of World Lion Day, which is the celebration of the animal itself.

The first time I saw lion in the flesh was in South Africa’s, Kruger National Park. A car was stopped seemingly watching two tawny eagles perched in a tree. Now being a bird lover I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to get a good close look at these birds so I stopped too. Gazing up admiring the birds I became aware of the occupants of the other car waving at me, trying to get my attention. They were frantically pointing down under the bushes, following their jabbing fingers I found what they wanted me to see, four  tawny legs poking out from under the bush, as if she heard me, up came a head, gave my presence a fleeting thought then slumped back down to sleep. My heart ready to burst with joy I grinned back at the car opposite then as I turned my glance back to the sleeping lion I caught a glimpse in my wing mirror that sent my heart racing. Two huge lions filled the mirror walking down the side of the car towards me. For an instant I forgot I was inside and a bolt of primal fear shot through me. But the lion were not interested in me, just the shade of the nice bush.

Lion have long been revered by man. The Eurasian cave lion has been immortalised by Palaeolithic man in cave art such as that found in Frances Lascaux and Chauvet caves. The Chauvet caves are thought to be the oldest rock art in the world dated at over 30 000 years old. Our very own Dr Craig Packer had the privilege to go into the caves to analyse these lion images. Only a handful of people have ever been inside the caves in an effort to preserve them.

Modern lions probably originated in eastern and southern Africa around 120 000 years ago where they then spread across Africa, south -eastern Europe, the Middle East, South Caucasus and into India. Ancient Greek writers suggest they were still present as recently as 100 BC in Greece and the Balkans. Lions survived in parts of Mesopotamia and Syria into the 19th century when the proliferation of guns saw their demise.

Their image, even today, is commonly used in heraldry as a symbol of strength, nobility, bravery or royalty. The ancient Greeks had many myths and stories of lion and their buildings and statues are resplendent with lions. It is easy to see why they are the most commonly used animal in heraldry. Even today in our jaded world lion are loved by many and as the example of Cecil the lion shows can elicit a huge emotional response from people the world over.

Let’s hope that on this World Lion Day that the tide can start to turn on the conservation fight for these glorious animals and we don’t lose that long history we have with the King of Beasts.

The Aardvark and the Termite.

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This summer in South West France has not been its usual hot balmy self. In fact as I look out the window now the overriding colour is a deep lush green. Normally by July it is turning a straw yellow colour but this year we have had plenty of rain. In contrast, to the south of us, fires have been raging through Portugal, Spain and South Eastern France. Who knows if this is a taste of what’s to come or a one year glitch in the system but one thing is for sure climate change is going to affect life on this planet in both subtle and not so subtle ways.

I wrote about termites last week and their importance in the ecosystem. This week I read a disturbing news article about aardvark, who of course survives on eating termites and ants.

A group of scientists in South Africa were studying aardvarks in the Kalahari. They had inserted biologgers into several aardvarks in order to follow their activity and body temperature. It turned out that the year of their study was an exceptional year of draught and all but one of the study animals along with others in the area died. They unexpectedly recorded a phenomenon not seen before that should be an eye opener to the ways in which future climate could affect not only individual species but whole ecosystems.

The aardvark themselves can withstand high temperatures but the termites on which they rely for food and water cannot. With the information provided by the biologgers the scientific team where able to see that the aardvark were not finding enough termites or ants to keep their energy levels up. Night times can be pretty cold in the Kalahari and the team found that the starving aardvark even swapped their usual night time foraging behaviour to day time in order to conserve body energy. They were even seen sunbathing in a bid to save energy. It seems that none of this adaptive behaviour was enough. There simply was not enough food for their needs and they slowly starved to death. At an average weight of 60 to 80 kg an aardvark is a large animal and needs to eat around 50 000 termites or ants a night.

One or two bad years will always happen but if climate change shifts as it is predicted many areas of Africa will become drier and hotter creating an aridity that most of the native termites and ants cannot tolerate. True, given time, more tolerant species may take over but in the meantime the much loved aardvark may become a creature of the past. But that is not the end of the story. The aardvark is more than just a curiously put together animal, it is the architect of large burrow systems that many other mammals, birds and reptiles are reliant on to escape extremes of hot and cold weather, to bring up their young and escape from predators. Most cannot excavate the hard earth themselves so with the possible demise of aardvark life would get a whole lot tougher for many many more animals.

If you want to read more about the study have a look at this link https://africageographic.com/blog/aardvarks-beating-climate-change/