You know you are in Africa when you wake up at the airport lodge on the edge of a capital city and stepping out from your room you come face to face with a bird that towers above you. Ostrich aside the dry heat of the Kalahari leaves you in no doubt you are in Africa.
I am in Namibia where I will be for the next two months. I am working on a cattle farm in the Waterberg plateau that is part of a greater nature conservancy. I have already got my camera-traps out, hopefully snapping away as I write. The idea is to look at how camera-trap spacing affects the chances of recording smaller mammals. There are plenty of those here, bat-eared fox, jackal, caracal, mongoose, pangolin, hare and aardwolf to name but a few.
The great thing about using camera-traps is that now they are up I have some weeks to wait before moving them so I have plenty of time to immerse myself in the African bush. I have already clocked up over 100 bird species in less than a week, its taking a while to get my ear back in gear, I keep hearing tantalisingly familiar calls but can’t quite remember who they belong to. It is the start of the rainy season and subsequently the breeding season so there is an awful lot of activity. The binoculars are back living on my shoulder and in use every few minutes.
The bush here consists of a lot of small bushes and trees interspersed with small open grass patches. Plenty of sickle bush, raisin bush and buffalo thorn. I forgot how hard it is to walk through, constantly getting hooked up on vicious thorns that grab at you as you pass.
The best bit of the trip is living in a tent, ok afternoon naps are impossible in the heat but you get to wake up early to the birds calling. The francolins and spurfowl are calling before the sun even rises. There are white browed sparrow weavers building nests in a tree near the tent that have the loveliest melodies. Then there is the night shift. It is pretty hard to fall asleep sometimes when the noises just make you want to get up and investigate. So far I have come face to face with a honey badger sniffing around our fire and several genets. The jackal’s shrill call is omnipresent but the one I listen out for is the rasping call of the leopard. I haven’t been disappointed, every other night that sound rumbles through me.
My internet connection is not so great but I should still be making regular posts for Snapshot Serengeti and there are still plenty of images to classify. We would like to run season 11 in the New Year if we can get season 10 completed. I may even have the odd camera-trap image from my Namibia project to share. Watch this space.
One of the groups of animals that seem to prove quite tricky to tell apart on Snapshot Serengeti are the small carnivores that belong to the canid and hyenid family. That is to say the jackals, black-backed and side-striped, the bat-eared fox and the aardwolf.
There are good reasons for this. Firstly they are predominantly nocturnal, though the jackals can often be seen in day light hours. Secondly they are small and constantly on the watch for larger predators. Studies have even shown that similar species such as coyotes are rather camera-trap shy so it could be possible these African cousins are avoiding the cameras. I noticed when looking for bat-eared fox images particularly that there are very few close up images, the foxes always seem to be in the distance. Something to maybe study?
So back to classifying, what’s the best way to tell these species apart?
Let’s start with the jackals, the most dog–like of the Serengeti’s small carnivores.
The first thing to note is there are actually three possible jackals to be found in the Serengeti but I will stick here to the side-striped and black-backed as the most common, the golden jackal doesn’t come up so often on our cameras but looks broadly the same as the other two with slightly more uniform colouring.
Jackals have dog like proportions with the shoulders and hind end approximately the same height. They have very pointed muzzles and large pointed ears. The black-backed can be distinguished by its black saddle running from the back of the neck through the shoulders up to a point at the top of the tail. It is flecked with white hairs giving a grizzled appearance. The rest of the body is a sandy colour. The side-striped is more uniform grey brown with a flash down its side both light and dark but lacking the saddle. The tip of the tail is often white. Their ears are smaller than black-backed jackal.
The bat-eared fox meanwhile is a strange looking creature. All three of these carnivores have large ears to help them locate prey but the bat-eared fox wins the prize. Its ears dwarf its little face which is very small. They need these huge ears to locate their insect prey. Over all bat-eared foxes are the smallest of the three and have a rather plain silver/grey coat with dark legs, ears and upper parts of its thick bushy tail. If you are not sure look at the over all posture. The jackals hold their head high on a strong neck but the little bat-eared fox often has his head down and appears to have no neck.
Aardwolf, although not canids, are included here because in size and shape they are very similar to the other two. Fortunately these guys have distinctive striped coats which help separate them from all but the much larger and very rare (in Snapshot Serengeti) striped hyena. The aardwolf seems to have a rather thick long neck and a much more hyena shaped heavy muzzle.
So the tip here is to look closely at body form as well as colour, hopefully seeing these images of the three together will be helpful next time you get stuck classifying.
Snapshot Serengeti has around 225 camera-traps laid out in a grid in the heart of the Serengeti National Park. They have been there for around 7 years and make up one of the longest running camera-trap monitoring projects in the world. Snapshot was launched on the Zooniverse portal in December 2012 and has inspired many more similar camera-trap projects from around the world. So Happy 5th Birthday to us, may there be many more to come.
There is no doubt that camera-trapping has gripped the hearts and imagination of both scientists and the public. Eight years ago when I first used camera-traps I had to explain them very carefully to friends and family as they had never encountered them, these days references to camera-traps appear in popular press articles and wildlife documentaries and most people have a basic idea of their use in conservation.
It was K. Ullas Karanth, an Indian wildlife zoologist, who is credited with pioneering the use of camera-traps as scientific tools in his study of tigers in the 1990’s. In the last two decades the technique has advanced at a hugely fast pace and has revolutionised the study of elusive and seemingly well known species alike. It is a scientists dream to observe animals without being present yourself to influence their behaviour.
But looking at the history of the discipline I can across many references to much earlier work using camera-traps. Back in 1927 National Geographic published an article by Frank M Chapman titled delightfully “Who Treads Our Trails”. The piece opens with this amazing paragraph
“If there be any sport in which the joys of anticipation are more prolonged, the pleasures of realisation more enduring, than that of camera trapping in the Tropics I have yet to find it!”
This guy would have loved Snapshot Serengeti. This is most likely the very first scientific paper to report on using camera-traps all be it very different cameras. His rig involved a tripwire the animal steps on rigged up to the camera shutter and bowls of magnesium that will explode and create the flash needed to illuminate the animal at night time. It seems incredible now that this would be allowed considering today’s ethically minded ethos but the author himself points out that the alternatives to studying animals could include using dogs or trappers to catch an animal or even poison bait. He decides he wants a census of the living not a record of the dead and so the idea of camera-traps for scientific study are born. He drew heavily from the work of George Shiras who published the first pictures taken by remote camera back in 1906 (also in National Geographic). George Shiras took the pictures for the pictures sake only later becoming involved with conservation but Frank Chapman was a true scientist.
Obviously the technology has changed a lot and the loud noisy explosions that accompanied Franks work have been replaced by covert black IR where even the glow of the infra-red flash is almost invisible. He would marvel at the amount of pictures that can be stored on an average SD card and that camera-traps are being used from the tropics to the snowfields of Antarctica.
You can look for the original article with this reference:
Chapman, F.M., September 1927. “Who Treads Our Trails?“, National Geographic, 52(3), 331-345
Or visit this site to see some of Frank Chapman’s images: http://www.naturespy.org/2014/03/camera-traps-science/