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Cheetah Tactics?

 

Here at Snapshot Serengeti we are lucky to get regular good images of all the big cats. Lions feature the most frequently followed by cheetah with leopard being the rarest. This is not surprising when you think that lions like to spend the day sleeping and resting after their night-time prowling. This means they make a bee-line for the shade of trees. Cheetah have the same idea, staying out of the sun during the day. Leopard of course tend to be up those trees and so its harder to capture them on camera trap. We are still waiting for the day that we get a capture of a fury belly as a leopard leaps up over the camera on its upward trajectory. Imagine how hard that could be to identify!

Looking through some of the recent images from the most recent batch we came across this series of three images of a cheetah walking right up to the tree the camera-trap was on, presumably to settle down for a nice nap, but is that all there is to this tree/cat relationship?

 

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Cheetah, as I am sure you are aware are at the bottom of the big cat chain. They don’t do well in a fight against lion, leopard or hyena for that matter so they have to stay alert to danger. They need time to slink away or flee at speed.

So now picture this, a cheetah is sleeping in the grass, it wakes up and wants to survey the plains to see if there is either prey or danger about. It sits up and bang! its seen by anything that happens to be near by. Now rewind a bit, the same cheetah has a nap under a tree. This time it sits up to survey and its slender body is masked by the trunk of the tree. Its not nearly so easy to spot from a distance.

Ok so its just a theory and probably cheetah primarily spend time underneath trees from a purely physiological perspective but it would be nice to think they were also using their tree as a point of tactical surveillance. Certainly in the hot shimmering air of the Serengeti it is hard to see a cheetah that is sitting upright under a tree until you are pretty close by. In my experience although lions like a tree too its just as likely that you will find them lounging in the shade of an erosion channel or small bush but cheetah always seem to by in that classic pose under a sturdy tree when resting.

It gets you thinking!

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The Lone Lion

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Kalamas and Lakes pride female Photo Credit: KopeLion, Ingela Jansson

 

It seems as though when it comes to lion ecology most of the experts seem to agree that male coalitions are usually the most successful at holding on to females and siring cubs. Certainly when take-overs happen it is usually the coalition with more members that wins the day and lone males find it hard to stand their ground. Numbers seem to count.

Of course that isn’t to say that single males can’t have fun or success. Take Kalamas, a male known to us in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. He is a nomadic male who wanders far and wide across the area even daring to take trips into the Crater itself, an area that in terms of lions is heavily defended by resident males, competition is very strong there and really not a place for a none resident lone male to be seen.

So what is so different about Kalamas. Well firstly he doesn’t seem concerned about the competition. Earlier this year whilst monitoring the Crater Lion’s Ingela Jansson of KopeLion project spotted a very distinctive dark maned male that she recognised as Kalamas. The last time he had been spotted in the Crater was in November 2015 but this time there he was in full view lounging around mating with one of the Lakes pride females. In the background four contesting males could be heard roaring their presence.

Kalamas ignored them and had the audacity to stay put in the crater with the female for three days before walking back up the steep Crater slope and out onto the open plains of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area where despite being surrounded by Maasai herders and their live stock he managed to stay out of trouble.

A few weeks later however we received a frantic message early one morning to say that Kalamas was sitting out in the open with many herders starting to gather. Fearing some sort of conflict our team rushed to the area, luckily fairly close to headquarters. Once there we could see that people were sensibly keeping a safe distance and approaching by car it was evident that Kalamas had been fighting. He showed deep wounds characteristic of fighting male lions and there was much blood splattered around.
He attempted to stand but couldn’t quite make it and so we feared he may have been fatally injured.

We decided to stay around and monitor the situation; Kalamas just lay there for many hours. As the sun climbed to its midday point kalamas managed to drag himself into the shade of our vehicle where he remained for the rest of the day. Just as we were starting to wonder what on earth to do next, with night fall approaching, Kalamas took us totally by surprise and stood straight up, shook himself gently and, rather shakily started to walk towards the safety of a well treed gully. Satisfied that we had done all we could and that Kalamas would take care of himself we left.

For the next few weeks we monitored his movements and he seemed to lay low, recovering, but you can’t keep a good lion down. Far from learning his lesson about encroaching on other male’s territories he has since been seen in the presence of other females from the Crater rim. His modus operandi seems to be to hang around on the periphery and entice the ladies away for a few days at a time. They just don’t seem to be able to get enough of him. Something about that Jon Snowesque mane of dark shaggy dark hair.

It is an interesting tactic. We ponder whether perhaps mating with pride females belonging to other males in this sneaky way may mean that when (and if) they give birth the resident male is duped into believing that Kalamas’s offspring are their own.
It is certainly a great way for Kalamas to get as many females as possible but not have the burden of looking after any of the offspring.

It is certainly an unusual story and far from the norm. It remains to be seen if Kalamas was at all successful or if the resident males were harder to fool than he imagined. We are looking out for cubs with dark manes though.

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The ladies just love Kalamas Photo Credit: KopeLion, Ingela Jansson

 

 

 

 

Watching For Whisker Spots

I recently met with Meritho, who has to have one of the best jobs in the world; he is paid to watch lions.

Yes it does sound like the dream job, following lions all day, observing their behaviour and trying to identify them but Meritho’s job is not quite the dream it would seem. For various reasons the long running Serengeti Lion Project was put on hold for three years which meant that all the diligently followed lion prides known intimately by researchers have done a lot of growing up, giving birth and dying. Not surprisingly it’s hard to work out who’s who and who belongs to whom.

Meritho has inherited the arduous task of re-establishing the family connections and splits within the Serengeti’s lion prides. Armed with some old scribbled maps and a stack of cards with drawings of lion whisker spots he has to compare each lion he sees with these cards to help him workout just who is still out there in the Serengeti lion society. Of course the camera trap images help a little but only if they capture the perfect close up, in focus image of the lions muzzle showing the spot pattern. In reality its all down to traipsing around the Serengeti looking out for lions and comparing each and every one with the hundreds of hand drawn cards.

 

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I asked Meritho how he tackles this mammoth task. Making a plan is key, he says, with most of the tracking collars non functional you have to think hard where the lions might be and just drive around looking for them.

Ok you can narrow it down a bit as Meritho does by getting up by 5 am, making sure your vehicle is puncture free and stocked with fuel and water and then heading out to try and catch the big cats as they finish up for the night. At this early hour they are often looking for a good spot to spend the day or joining back up with young cubs that have been left somewhere safe whilst mothers where out hunting. All this movement increases his chances of running into lions.

Most of the time Meritho is far from base so eats lunch in the car only returning home around 5:30 as it starts to get dark. Its long hours and most of the time you are either sitting waiting or driving, briefly interspersed with spells actually watching the lions. In return they themselves are often infuriatingly sleepy and won’t lift their heads for you to get good pictures of their whiskers meaning even when you do find lions you cannot always see who they are.

So far he has managed to identify around 150 individual lions and is monitoring around 18 prides. Monitoring lions gives him a sense of pleasure that he is out there doing a scientific job he never dreamt, as a Tanzanian, he would get the chance to do. He says ‘ when I look at where I come from and where I am going as a researcher it brings a lot of value to my life, knowing what research means is one thing but doing research makes me feel like I am contributing something to the world and my home environment’. He is gaining knowledge and experience daily and hopes to continue doing great things within conservation, an inspiration to aspiring local scientists.

It’s great to know that Meritho is out there following the lions again and that the Snapshot Serengeti cameras are still going to be clicking away for sometime to come.

 

Wildebeest Season

Wildebeest on the open plains. Credit Lucy Hughes

 

People all around the world know about the great wildebeest migration through the Mara/Serengeti ecosystem. Those of you who classify on Snapshot Serengeti are more than familiar with the thousands of wildebeest and zebra images. A few of you will have been lucky enough to witness the spectacle.

For myself working here in the greater Serengeti ecosystem I have been eagerly awaiting the event since early November and boy, I have not been disappointed.

Having spent most of my time in Southern Africa I haven’t experienced this kind of mass migration before, sure I have seen large herds of buffalo in Kruger National Park and seen the elephant migration from Botswana into Namibia through Khaudom National Park but this here in the Serengeti is something else.

Up until recently the area I work in has been a dust bowl with a few blades of grass and bare branched thorn trees. It didn’t look like it could support much and the lions were becoming thin. Only the little dik dik looked healthy. The area is also home to Maasai herders and so scrawny cows, sheep and goats filled the landscape, conflict between lions and humans was running high.

Then the rains started. Slowly at first, not the dramatic down pours you see in Nature documentaries but teasing splatters that have you willing for more. By mid-December though enough had fallen to tip the balance and the vegetation began to grow.

Shortly after the rumours began, so and so saw a large group of wildebeest to the north, then so and so was camping and heard the distant gnu-ing of wildebeest on the move. Then out of nowhere they were here. Everywhere you look there are hundreds, in fact if the bush was less dense you would soon realise there are thousands. Zebras are here too but not quite so many. Meanwhile the Maasai herders with cows have vacated the area. They avoid the wildebeest who can pass on disease that is deadly to their cows.

With the herds finally here, the lions can relax. They have gone from skin and bones to full and fat seemingly overnight. I am following one particular pride, two of its females have given birth in the last two weeks, absolutely perfect timing (of course this was down to luck rather than judgement as lion don’t have set breeding seasons). I haven’t seen the cubs yet as they are tucked very safely away in some extremely prickly dense bush which is a good thing because the place is teaming with milling wildebeest, zebra and elephant. The mums don’t have to go far for dinner, its more like a home delivery at the moment and the satellite tracking shows this well, they haven’t moved more than about 1.5km from the denning spot! These cubs have a good chance at life.

After a long day of monitoring lions, I found a quite camping spot in an area of more open bush. I took a moment to lay on the ground and close my eyes for a 10 minute nap before dragging myself up again to make tea and set up camp. As I got up, I looked out to a crowd of wildebeest about 40 meters away gently gnu-ing and all looking at me. They seemed so confused that I was there. After a short standoff they turned 900 and continued on their way towards goodness knows where.

That’s the strange thing, when you watch nature documentaries the migration looks so purposeful but when you are in the middle of it, particularly when you are not on the open plains but in thicker bush its harder to tell. Its more of a swirling pattern than a straight A to B and the herds just keep moving round and round the area looking for the freshest new grass. So sometimes you see 100’s moving south only to see another group heading North.

Wherever they are going it is hard to describe how it makes you feel to see such numbers of wild animals. For me it is hope and relief that at least somewhere in this world wildlife seems to be doing ok. For a moment you can lose yourself and imagine what this planet used to look like when things where in balance.

The wonder of nature.

 

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Wildebeest massing. Credit Lucy Hughes

Merry Christmas from the Snapshot Serengeti Team

The last month has seen a new batch of Snapshot Serengeti Images uploaded to the Zooniverse. There seems to be a high portion of really stunning images amongst the 40000 odd that were uploaded in this batch. Now there is no rhyme nor reason for this as the camera-traps are impartial, they simply snap away when an animal triggers them. It is pure luck if the resultant image is a perfect portrait or a tip of a horn or tail.

Of course, as scientists we don’t so much care about pretty pictures as being able at least to id the animals involved but no one is immune to a great image and so we at Snapshot Serengeti give a great big thanks to the animals of the Serengeti for being so cooperative when it comes to our camera-traps.

As you classify the images do remember to flag any really special ones for everyone to enjoy.

Christmas is approaching and so from all the team at Snapshot Serengeti Merry Christmas. Its been a big year for us moving over to the new system and joining up with Snapshot Safari, thanks for sticking with us through the teething problems and a big thank you for all your classifications over 2018.

 

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On The Trail Of Lions

I have been a little quiet recently and for that I must apologise but my excuse is good. I have been relocating to Tanzania where I am going to be based for the next three months working with Kopelion in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. One of Snapshot Serengeti’s partners kopelion (Korongoro People’s Lion Initiative) is a conservation organisation and research project that focuses on human-lion coexistence in the multi use landscape of Ngorongoro. I have written about the project in these blogs if you want to read more  https://blog.snapshotserengeti.org/2017/02/23/meet-the-people-2/

After a two week intensive language course in nearby Moshi I have finally made it to base camp on the crater rim. The office is perched at 2300m looking down on the Crater Lake and has one of the best office views I have ever had which makes up for being stuck indoors when you would rather be in the field.
It’s not all office based thank goodness and I have already had the pleasure of three days out in the Ndutu area learning about the work the project does. Although there has been some rain it is still in the grip of the dry season here and the scenery for the most part is a dry and dusty yellow. The lions are hungrily awaiting the rains that will bring a welcome flush of green that will draw the wildebeest in vast numbers and thus plenty of prey.
Saturday was spent following up on reports of lion spoor (tracks) found near to an area that Maasai bring their cattle to drink. We turned up early morning to start tracking the spoor to see if we could figure out if the lion where still in the area; if this turns out to be the case a lion guardian or Ilchokuti will stay put in the vicinity to warn herders about the lion presence and hopefully avoid an encounter.
It was obvious that several lion had been in the area, you could see depressions in the sand where they had lay down for a bit of a nap. The tracks lead alongside a small water drainage channel and the lions had wandered down to drink in a few spots. Further along the water channel the tracks of individual lions suddenly converged on one access path down to the water. Clearly something had excited their interest. After a careful look around we descended the same route to investigate. Lying in the mud at the edge of the water we found the body of a young spotted hyena, teeth marks around its throat and the surrounding tracks told the story. Most likely the youngster was drinking when the lions ambushed it, its small size meant it didn’t stand a chance and lions probably quickly dispatched it.
Despite the fact that the lions in the area are somewhat lean at the moment they made no attempt to eat the hyena. This is normal behaviour for lions; they will not tolerate other predators in their territory and will kill them if the chance arises. There was a lack of other hyena spoor in the area so this youngster was probably on its own, why we cannot say but it became an easy target for the lions.
It is a great privilege to walk into an area that has such a story written out for you in the sand and mud. In this instant the presence of a body left little to interpret but the trackers here are capable of reading far less obvious stories and it is this skill that is helping to mitigate lion-human conflict by acting as an early warning system to the people who live side by side with lions.
Our camera-trapping efforts afford us an unparalleled view into the lives of the Serengeti ecosystems animals but the work of conservation has many aspects and I hope to bring you a good view of what is going on here over the next few months.

Spotted hyena killed by lions

Lion Fight

 

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Photo Credit: Edward Lopatto

 

These incredible images of a major lion turf war have been taken by the team in the Serengeti and come with the fantastic announcement that the long running Serengeti Lion Project is back up and running.

Although the camera-trap aspect of the project has continued without pause, the main work of the Serengeti Lion project  has been on hiatus for the past few years. Now, it is finally being restored and the priority is to sort out who’s who in all the study area prides. Comparing existing id’s and adding new ones is going to take some time.

Looks like these boys are trying to shake up the genes even more. Two coalitions both looking strong have clashed over ownership of prime real estate. The team report that all the males involved looked strong and healthy so this is probably not the definitive battle.

We will have more news for you soon on how the work is going as well as reports from the field, so stay tuned. Meanwhile enjoy these stunning images.

Vulture Culture

Lappet-faced vulture

 

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.

Living In The Lions Den

 

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.

Recap on Snapshot

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Snapshot Serengeti camera-trap image: Topi

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.