Of all the large birds out there on the Serengeti plains the vultures are probably the most recognisable, with their long barely feathered necks and large hooked beaks, you can’t miss them. For a lot of people they are ugly birds and their behaviour makes people shudder, all that frantic plunging of necks inside messy carcasses. Some cultures revere the vulture, instilling magical attributes to them whilst others vilify them.
But the truth is they are just birds with their own unique ecological niche, one that is absolutely essential to the health of the whole ecosystem.
Lets break it down. That neck, well the fact that the whole head and neck is either bare or only lightly feathered is a marvellous adaptation to keeping clean. Yep, not something people generally associate with vultures but they are in fact pretty clean birds. That beak, well it may look like it could kill quite efficiently but it is actually designed to grip hard and rip. Believe me I have been around rescued vultures and felt the effect, there is a lot of power there. A vulture will use its sizable feet to hold a tricky bit of carcase down when trying to tear off a chunk but the real power comes from the strong neck muscles and the powerful beak.
If you look closely at the different species of vulture you will notice that not only is there a difference in size of individual species but in the beak size. There is a hierarchy in vulture etiquette at a fresh carcase. If the dead animal is large and has a tough hide, say a buffalo, the larger species such as lappet-faced will be needed to ‘break in’. Their huge beaks and added bulk allow them to head straight for the good bits where lesser vultures would have to start with the natural openings such as the eyes, mouth and anus. Once the large vultures have broken in, the rabble takes over and fights it out for the good meat, the white-backed and Ruppell’s. Around the peripheries the hooded vultures will be waiting for the chance to snatch up bits of anatomy that are sent flying by over- zealous cousins or to dart in when the carcase looks almost clean to pick off the last bits of flesh in hard to reach places. It is not uncommon to see this species right inside the empty carcase and its slim lined beak is great at cleaning up.
Vultures search for food from the wing. Research has shown that in the Serengeti it is most often the lappet-faced that arrives first despite the numbers of this species being lower than the others. It seems they are extra vigilant or just have better eyes. The descent of this the largest African vulture draws in the other species who can be clued into the find from over 30kms away. It is quite breath taking to see many vultures on rapid descent with wings held inwards, feathers splayed it can also be noisy.
But other than cleaning up unsightly dead things how do vultures help the ecosystem? Like other organisms that consume dead animal matter vultures are immune to a lot of deadly diseases. Their stomachs are filled with very acidic digestive juices which can destroy diseases such as anthrax, cholera and rabies. Most scavengers would not be immune to these types of disease and what’s more, diseases such as anthrax can lay dormant for decades posing an ongoing risk. Of course vultures alone can’t keep the Serengeti disease free but with their ability to fly over 100km a day they do a darn good job of patrolling the plains and keeping them clean.
But outside of protected areas vultures are in decline. In places like South Africa there has always been a value placed on vultures with Sangoma or witchdoctors prescribing vulture heads for people needing to see into the future to answer big life questions. Of course this has modernised, now people purchase vulture heads to see the winning lottery numbers. Vultures are also targeted by poaching gangs who, in an effort not to have their poaching camps discovered, place poison bait to attract and kill the vultures. India, several years ago nearly lost ALL its Gyps vultures. 95% where thought to have died and the main cause discovered to be adverse effects from a drug called diclofenac that was widely given to domestic stock. The drug has since been banned in India but its use as a veterinary drug in Africa is rising causing major concern amongst conservationists. Loss of habitat is also an issue.
We are lucky that the Serengeti is an ecosystem functioning normally with all its facets. You may be lucky to spot, lappet-faced, white-headed, white-backed, Ruppell’s griffon, hooded and Egyptian vultures in our camera trap images. It is quite remarkable to find this type of balance these days and we thank the vultures for their ongoing services.
The saying goes a picture is worth a thousand words but here we have a picture that doesn’t tell us enough.
What happened here? We see a beautiful male lion strolling through the Serengeti but he has quite a gash on his back. Other wise he looks unharmed and he has a full looking belly so what do you think? A fight, a hunting injury, miss judged a low branch?
This picture leaves us hanging and is a few words short of the sentence. What’s your thoughts?
Snapshot Serengeti is in the limelight again!
A new paper titled “No respect for apex carnivores: Distribution and activity patterns of honey badgers in the Serengeti” has been published by a team from the University of Wisconsin and University of Ljubljana using the Snapshot Serengeti data classified by our citizen scientists.
Honey badgers are surprisingly understudied. Although extremely charismatic the fact that they have large territories, up to 541km2 for an adult male in the Kalahari, and no clear habitat preferences makes it hard to predict where to find and study them.
The Snapshot Serengeti data of course is a dream come true to many researchers enabling them to ask scientific questions without having to wait potentially years to collect data themselves.The team took advantage of the open access data, courtesy of Snapshot Serengeti to look at what they could learn about honey badgers and how they live alongside other predators. Ferocious as they are honey badgers are killed by lion, hyena and leopard and so the team wanted to know whether they avoided areas where these large carnivores were active.
Well it seems that despite ending up as an occasional victim the honey badger is quite happy living alongside the larger carnivores, at least in the Serengeti anyway according to the authors. It appears as if the honey badger actively seeks out the same habitats as the large carnivores. The authors modelled a variety of different explanatory scenarios to see which would be the best fit to explain honey badger distribution across the Serengeti study area. Included where variables such as habitat preference, water availability, cover availability, lion abundance, and leopard abundance. Their best models showed that the presence of all three large carnivores coincided with the presence of honey badgers and that there was also a positive correlation temporally between leopard, hyena and honey badger showing that they use the same habitat at the same time.
It’s interesting stuff. The authors do point out that although the data set was huge there was actually very few incidence of honey badger over the 3 year period covered by their work and so their sample size was small. It does however show just how valuable the data collected by Snapshot Serengeti and the other Snapshot Safari projects can be, if nothing else to give scientists a relatively inexpensive way to explore questions before undertaking more specific research work themselves.
You can read the paper here, although it is not open access unfortunately: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1616504717302720
These two images illustrate the point nicely, you can clearly see the same camera has captured honey badger and spotted hyena with in 13 days of each other. Interestingly both in day light.
Whilst stretching the corners of my brain to think about a new topic to write about in the Snapshot Serengeti blogs it astounds me to realise just how long we have been going for; over 7 years now as Snapshot Serengeti and almost 10 if you include the Serengetilive days.
It is also humbling to know how dedicated our followers are and what support we get from them. Our fun would have been over long ago if the community had not backed us. It has occurred to me that Snapshot Serengeti’s followers do so in differing ways. Those who follow our facebook and twitter pages or WordPress fans who follow us through our blogs may have missed what it is we are up to. So at risk of boring those of you who do know I thought it was about time to reiterate what it is we at Snapshot Serengeti do and how it all works.
Our largest group of followers do so at www.snapshotserengeti.org helping us classify the millions of camera-trap images that are produced by around 225 camera-traps placed in a permanent grid pattern in our study zone in the Serengeti National Park. For continuity’s sake these sites, after an initial bit of trial and error have remained in their fixed spots since they were first chosen by the projects designer, Dr Ali Swanson back in 2010.
Originally the camera-trap grid was set up to answer questions on carnivore interactions specifically if carnivores were avoiding one another spatially and temporally, it soon became apparent that it could be used to pose many more scientific questions amongst them herbivore coexistence and predator prey relationships. The wisdom to leave this permanent window of observance into the lives of the Serengeti animals should lead to many future studies and has spawned many new similar camera-trap projects around the world.
It’s not all about the animals, in fact since teaming with Zooniverse the project has been as much about the advancement of citizen science as anything else. Back in the Serengetilive days there were so few of us taking part that we used to have our names up in a sort of league table of who had classified the most images. Each classified image was labelled by the classifiers name. Now of course there are far too many participants to bother with that kind of thing, besides with multiple people having to agree on each classification it might get messy. The work on developing a robust algorithm that dealt with the uncertainties in each individual classification was so involved it also paved the way for many more projects and several scientific papers.
So what do we ask classifiers to do? Well first you are presented with either a run of 3 images (day time) or 1 image (night time). You are then asked to decide and record what animals are present, numbers of each species, behaviour and whether there are young present or not. It’s pretty straight forward with prompts along the way. If you don’t know what the animal is you simply guess. Yes you read that right, you guess. One thing the developers worked out is that the whole project works better if you cannot skip images. For one thing it avoids all the hard or boring images being left till the end. As each image has to be agreed upon by several classifiers before it is retired this tends to smooth out any miss classifications and research has shown we are around 97% accurate.
If you find something good or something you cannot id and are curious you can add the image to Talk which is the discussion forum. There we have some very dedicated moderators who will help you with your queries.
All in all Snapshot Serengeti is about learning and sharing both for the researchers and for the community of classifiers so if you have been enjoying the facebook posts or reading the blogs but have never had a go classifying get yourself over there to www.snapshotserengeti.org and have a go.
There is one little animal in Europe that is loved by all, immortalised in children’s books, welcomed by gardeners and flagship of the realisation that our mammal populations may be declining due to our very own actions. Over in the States although not native these same creatures are kept as pets (that’s another story and not such a good one). Although it’s hardly a creature to cuddle or pet they are thought of as very cute, something to do with that snuffling around your garden in dry leaves and, getting all snoozy, having to sleep away the winter in a cosy corner. Yes, I write of the hedgehog.
Now, why, I hear you ask is she writing about a European mammal on a blog about the Serengeti? Well it may come as a surprise to some to find out that there are in fact 18 species of spiny hedgehog found across Europe, Asia and Africa. Six species are present in Africa. The North African hedgehog (Atelerix algirus) extends its range across the Mediterranean belt of North Africa and Iberian Peninsula as well as the Balearic and Canary islands. The long-eared hedgehog (Hemiechinus auritus) touches into Libya and Egypt and the desert hedgehog (Paraechinus aethiopicus) a true Saharan specialist. The last two species are also found through Arabia and Asia. The remaining three species are solely found in Africa; the southern African hedgehog (Atelerix frontalis), Somali hedgehog (Atelerix sclateri) and the four-toed hedgehog (Atelerix albiventris).
The four-toed hedgehog is found across West, Central and East Africa as far as the Zambezi River and so is the species that is found in the Serengeti. As far as I know we have never had a capture event from our camera traps of this enigmatic little creature but please let me know if someone has come across one.
In European culture where woodlands are seen as wildlife havens most people would associate the hedgehog with forests or at the very least the edges of forests and hedgerows where indeed this species is well at home but its African cousins are rather different in their habitat preferences. The four-toed prefers the drier regions and is partial to grasslands and according to The Handbook of the Mammals of the World vol 8 it especially likes overgrazed regions with dense ungulate populations. All that trampled grass and dung supports plenty of insects for it to munch. Well that sounds just like the Serengeti to me!
Although insects make up a large part of the diet they are omnivorous and will eat fungi and fruits as well as other plant matter. A little known fact, they will also kill small vertebrates like frogs, lizards and mice and are known to take on even venomous snakes. Their spines are great protection from the bite of an angry snake.
As formidable as those spines are it is the ability to curl up into a ball that is their true defence. Now they don’t just tuck their heads in and hope for the best, the skin that the spines are attached to is very flexible and is edged by a strong band like muscle that is attached to the forehead. When it is contracted it acts like a drawstring on a bag that holds in the body, head and limbs with the spines closing up the seal. It works remarkably well but inevitably certain animals have learned how to unzip the bag, honey badgers and eagle-owls are amongst those experts in the Serengeti.
As a family hedgehogs are known to perform a bizarre act known as self-anointing. The hedgehog will chew and lick a substance until it has a mouth full of saliva and then with acrobatic contortions it will plaster this saliva all over its body, apparently they do this in a frenzied manor and it is quite hard to distract them once in the process. What is unclear is why they do it. There is no obvious reason. Studies have shown every age group performing self-anointing including nestlings whose eyes have not even opened. They only thing that stands out is that strong smells and tastes seem to trigger the behaviour such as dog or fox urine and a whole host of human made items such as leather, polish or nylon stockings. I am not even going to ask what the scientific research question was when they discovered those three!
So from Mrs Tiggy-Winkle (Beatrix Potter) to sonic the hedgehog we may all be very familiar with this loveable creature but perhaps we don’t know all there is to know. Keep your eyes out for the first Snapshot Serengeti camera-trapping.
Image: Author Jkasui, Wikimedia, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en
I am sitting at home in France in a sweltering 40oc listening to golden orioles calling from the tall riverine trees. I could definitely be in Africa, though if I was I would probably be somewhat reluctant to jump in the river to cool off, something I am about to do, what with all the hippo and crocs that the Serengeti is so famous for.
It has got me thinking though about all our shared birds between Africa and Europe. Hearing the orioles today has made me realise that they will be setting off very soon, in the next couple of weeks probably, for their return trip to their wintering grounds in Africa.
Now the Serengeti is justly known for its rather famous herbivore migration but to me it is utterly fascinating that birds, particularly the tiny ones are also taking part in seasonal movements that cover 1000’s of kilometres.
It’s a dangerous journey, they risk predation, starvation and severe weather and if that’s not enough they have to pass over several places where humans think blasting as many of them out of the sky as possible is sport. For the birds migrating from Europe to Africa they have to fly over open sea and a lot have to negotiate the Sahara Desert, an area around the size of the United States. It is estimated that 500 million birds have to cross this unforgiving wilderness and some do it in a long nonstop flight. Just imagine how exhausted they are the when they reach the safety of the green belts that fringe it. My husband used to work in the Sahara and can attest to finding dozens of swallows just lying panting on the ground, being able to pick them up and give them water before launching them onwards.
So why do they do it, well much the same reason as wildebeest and zebra do, resources. Birds have the very special ability to travel very efficiently, it has been said that a small bird can fly the same distance in hours that an elephant would cover in three days. With this ability birds are able to switch geographical areas in order to take advantage of seasonal food supplies and so they enjoy the best of both worlds in terms of food abundance despite the risk involved with moving the great distance between the two. Risk versus reward.
Unlike the Serengeti herbivore migration birds have many different strategies when it comes to undertaking their colossal movements often depending on the species unique design. Many small passerines will migrate in small groups, travelling at night and will try for the shortest, most direct route. A kind of fast and furious approach that relies on having fed up well and being able to feed quickly at the few places they do stop to refuel. Other birds, particularly waders will take a more leisurely approach flying down waterways and coasts, stopping for days or weeks at a time to feed up before moving on. Many raptors and storks cross the Mediterranean Sea over Gibraltar and Tarifa in Spain. It is roughly a 14 kilometre crossing. It is an amazing spectacle to see. Thousands of birds can be seen soaring around in the late morning over land waiting for the thermals to build up which they will use to ride across the sea to Africa. It’s kind of like surfing only on hot air.
Once they get to Africa of course they have a huge choice of where to go and they spread out accordingly, many making it all the way to South Africa. In fact we still don’t know where a lot of them go, something that is vital to understanding the threats facing them today.
So who are the feathered migrants that we may see in the Serengeti? Well across Tanzania there are thought to be around 160 species of Palaearctic/African migrants. The Palaearctic is a large region covering Europe, Russia, North Africa, Arabia and parts of Asia so that’s a lot of movement.
Some of Europe’s smallest birds can be found in the Serengeti amongst them willow warblers, wood warblers and blackcaps. Spotted flycatchers and several shrikes can be easily seen. The common cuckoo is trickier as it is, like many migrants, silent outside of its breeding ground. European bee-eaters and rollers meet up with their African cousins as do barn swallows and common house martins.
Even raptors make it to the famous park; lesser spotted, steppe and imperial eagles all breed in the Palaearctic. Eurasian marsh harrier, black kite and common buzzard all enjoy the warm African conditions before heading back north to breed.
For Snapshot Serengeti followers the most commonly seen migrants on our camera-traps are probably storks, white storks and black storks all take the long journey north for breeding. More surprisingly given it is not noted for its water even European ducks have been spotted in the Serengeti, wigeon, Eurasian teal and garganey amongst them.
This is not an exhaustive list but gives you an idea of the level in which the two continents are connected through their shared avian fauna and reminds us of what a truly global planet we live on.
When we think of Snapshot Serengeti we think about the massive array of 225 camera-traps that are spread over 1125 km2 in the Serengeti National Park permanently clicking away. Partly this is fostered by the fact that when citizen scientists help out classifying images for the project they are randomly assigned images from a mixture of the 225 camera-traps rather than a sequential set from one camera. This is done so that each member of the community gets the chance to see a good range of different animals rather than, say, getting a camera-trap that was triggered 1000’s of times by grass.
For the most part anyway, people are concentrating so hard on the animals in the image that the scenery in the back ground is almost incidental. Regular contributors though will be aware that there are one or two camera-traps that are in very recognisable locations for example one trained on a group of boulders and one on a log. For some reason these spots seem to produce some really memorable images; the log was the scene of our melanistic serval as well as lion cubs, the boulder gave us some stunning images of spotted eagle-owl.
Recently the most epic capture event ever on Snapshot Serengeti surfaced of a pride of lions hunting a buffalo (if you missed it look here, https://www.facebook.com/SnapshotSerengeti/). That sequence was captured at a special little spot in the Serengeti, Dik-Dik Corner. The view is basically of a lone tree standing at a three-way cross road in animal tracks. There seems to be a pair of dik dik who hold this area central to their territory and they appear regularly, hence the name, but they are certainly not the only ones.
Here is a slide show of the passing wildlife at Dik Dik corner.
Of course these are not the only critters to have passed this way but this selection really shows how the animals follow the trails, something camera-trap researchers have used to their advantage over the years.
Its summer time again and that means the research teams are out in the field collecting data. The Snapshot Safari team have been checking up on all the camera trap projects dotted across Africa and adding more to the list at the same time as clocking up adventure stories from their travels. Snapshot Serengeti’s Dr Michael Anderson and his team are continuing with their resource partitioning research in the Serengeti and using the opportunity to check up on the condition of our camera traps, probably, as they do each year, replacing one or two that have malfunctioned or been damaged beyond repair.
So whilst they are doing their part for science I am stuck here in France behind my computer catching up with report writing. Though being summer and me an ecologist it is so very easy to get distracted by the outside world.
This year has been a bonanza year for invertebrate locally. The spring started with a mass eruption of the invasive box moth (Cydalima perspectalis). Literally every blooming flower was coated, snow like with their white bodies; one lime tree in our garden we estimated at over 100 000 moths. The caterpillars have decimated the local box (Boxus spp) forests but I was beginning to wonder what effect the millions of moths would have on food resources for other insects. I needn’t have worried, the box moths have gone and summer blooms have brought out hundreds of other butterflies and beetles, bees and spiders. It is an entomologist’s heaven out there.
This seems to have had a knock on effect in the birds. Never have I discovered so many active birds’ nests near to my house. Several rounds of blackbirds, chaffinches and black red-starts have fledged already and the hedges have been awash with the calls of nightingales, black caps and wrens. The air positively rings with the sound of begging baby birds.
Just two meters from my balcony there is a chaffinch nest in the hibiscus with four babies ready to fledge. It is so close that I barely need binoculars to watch the goings on. This is always a great delight for an ecologist or naturalist because it gives you just that little bit more insight to the nesting habits of common birds.
At first appearance it seems just the female was caring for the young birds but then I realised that every time she arrived, flying in at the base of an adjacent bush and making her way to the nest in stealth mode there was another chaffinch calling loudly from a high point in a not too distant tree. It didn’t take too long to realise that this was the male acting as decoy to draw the attention of any would be predators away from the real action. Once the female finished stuffing hungry beaks with juicy insects and flew off, the male was right behind her only to reappear in his tree top squawking seconds before she arrived back with another beak-full.
Thanks to this pairs faith in nesting close to my house I have had lots of time to watch the great team effort of these little common birds.
So whilst feeling somewhat jealous of my team colleagues who are out enjoying themselves in the African sun it is worth remembering just how much goes on under our very own noses and just how wonderful nature is.
A few years back the Snapshot Serengeti community classified its first ever zorilla (Ictonyx striatus). It’s not an animal that most people are familiar with and you would probably not expect to even see one on a safari in Africa. It is certainly not on the big five list or even on the little five list but just like its bigger cousin the honey badger it’s a gutsy little creature.
The zorilla, or African striped polecat belongs to the Mustelidae family that includes the well known honey badger, otters and weasels. Although superficially similar looking to skunks they are unrelated.
So how would you recognise one? First of all they are small, only 28 – 38 cm long with a bushy tail of around 25cm. The most striking feature is the black and white stripy coat. The body is overall black with four white stripes running from the head to the tail which is mostly white. There are white patches on the face and head and the small ears are often white rimmed. The fur is quite long lending the zorilla a slightly scruffy appearance.
Zorillas share more than their looks with skunks; they are also able to squirt noxious smelling liquid from their anal glands as a defence mechanism against predators. So if you do ever encounter one, give this little guy the respect it demands and stay well back.
These tough little creatures will eat a wide range of items, invertebrates, reptiles, rodents and birds but they seem to favour rodents and insects. They are known to tackle venomous snakes and large rats by pinning them to the ground and repeatedly biting at the back of the neck to make the kill. Nocturnal, they find most prey by smell and won’t hesitate to follow prey down into burrows or use their strong claws to un-earth something. Its small elongated size is perfectly adapted for this task.
Zorillas are found across sub Saharan Africa in a wide variety of habitats but seem to avoid the wetter rainforest belt through west and central Africa. They are mainly terrestrial but are known to be good climbers and happy to swim if needed. Due to their widespread presence in Africa their conservation status is classed as Least Concern by the IUCN red list.
So why don’t we see more on our camera-traps? Well not much is known about zorillas, their small size and nocturnal habits make them hard to study and in a place like the Serengeti they are just not a high priority species. However we do know they are present because they do show up on the camera-traps from time to time. I suspect that the main reason they are not picked up more frequently is their small size coupled with their fast paced frenetic life. The weasel family is notoriously hard to capture on camera-trap as they tend to shoot through the trigger zone before the camera has got its-self together to trigger. Perhaps we will see more zorillas in the future when the camera trigger speeds increase.
This is a great sequence from one of our 225 camera-traps that are tirelessly snapping away in the heart of the Serengeti National Park. One of the largest and longest running camera-trap projects, Snapshot Serengeti has been running for over 8 years with out a break.
The millions of images generated by so many cameras are processed by the amazing online community of citizen scientists without whom the team of scientists would probably still be working their way through season 2 rather than ploughing their way through season 10 (that’s were we are at currently, November 2015 to September 2016).
Those of you who have helped out on Snapshot Serengeti will realise that there is a great variety of images that come up, they are randomly assigned to each classifier and currently have to have at least 10 matched classifications before being retired. A great many are of grass or the tail end of animals as they pass by. Its the frustration of camera-trapping, when you look at the results you just wish you could nudge the camera to the left a bit to get a better image but of course its way to late for that once you have the image safely in hand.
But every once in a while we get a stunning image worthy of a professional photographer or one that shows really interesting behaviour and those are the images that get people hooked on returning day after day to help out on Snapshot Serengeti. A little fix of wildlife in its environment enjoyed from your home.
This sequence of a lion pride is great. In all likely hood the four individuals we can see here are not the only members, others could be out of frame. It looks as though the female has a pink tone to her muzzle, now it could be a trick of the light but its also possible that the pride have recently fed. The full looking belly and the relaxed nature of the other members would lend weight to this possibility but we will never know for sure (unless more images from that camera-trap reveal more proof!)
It is most definitely one of those moments when you wish you could pan the camera around to see what else is going on, did we almost get a kill on camera? are there a bunch of cubs laying under a bush to the right? are there a pair of resplendent pride males slumbering to the left?
If you do discover more from this series do let us know but for the time being we shall have to let our imagination ramble.