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The Secret Life of Trees

This is another guest post by Drs. Tom Morrison and Michael Anderson  about the Snapshot Serengeti Special Edition and what their research hopes to uncover.

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Seeing the forest for the trees

First, a big THANK YOU to everyone who has helped classified images at Snapshot Serengeti, both past and present. Without the continued help of this great online community, our research would come to a grinding halt! So thank you. A number of folks (and at least one giraffe) have asked about the new study currently up on Snapshot Serengeti, so here’s a fuller explanation of this work.

Photos from our newest Snapshot Serengeti Special Season come from a camera trap experiment in Serengeti involving friends and collaborators based at Wake Forest University (US), University of Georgia (US) and University of Glasgow (UK).

One of the exciting things about these new images is that they come from some of the more remote corners of the park, far beyond where past photos (Season 1-9) were (and continue to be) collected. So, keep an eye out for different species than past surveys. For instance in the north, you might see oribi, a small and elegant ungulate with a large dark scent gland below its eye. In the south, our cameras overlap the home ranges of some of the few black rhinoceros still living in the park, and we already know there are at least a few rhino images in our pile, like this:

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We set these cameras at a slightly higher height (1.5 meters in most cases), which allows us to see species from new wider angles. Admittedly, this new experimental design makes animal classifications a bit harder because we can often see far into the distance. Our advice is to simply do your best, but don’t sweat it too much if you can’t figure it out. Better to see the forest than the trees.

Back to the research…

Speaking of trees, this new study is trying to unravel the secret lives of trees. We monitor hundreds of individually marked trees around the ecosystem and revisit them each year to measure growth, survival, disease and few other things. You may have noticed little cages in some of the camera trap photos (see giraffe above). These are part of our experiment and enclose four small native tree seedlings which we transplanted to the plots after growing them in a nursery for 6 weeks. In fact we planted over 800 seedlings around the ecosystem to study the relative importance of herbivory, fire and rainfall on seedling growth and survival. So, we need camera traps to monitor things when we’re not there.

For example, check out the following sequence captured on one of our game cameras in southern Serengeti involving one of our marked trees:

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What’s amazing about this is that not only does an elephant kill an adult tree, he does it under 60 seconds. This tree is an Acacia tortilis, or the “umbrella acacia,” named for its characteristic flat top. Umbrella acacias are one of the most common trees in Serengeti and one of our main study species. Images like these help inform our study of trees, telling us how they died, or at least how many large herbivores were in the area to potentially kill and eat them. But this begs the question: if a tree falls in the Serengeti, will anyone hear it? At least we know that there’s a small chance that one of our cameras might see it.

Reintroducing the Wild Dog

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Snack Time

One of the neat carnivores I got to work with in South Africa that we don’t experience much in Tanzania is the African wild (or “painted”) dog. These endangered carnivores live and hunt in highly social packs which, like wolves, are dominated by an alpha male and female. African wild dogs used to roam the Serengeti, but vanished in the park in the early 1990s due in part to diseases such as rabies and canine distemper contracted from domestic dogs.

During my first field season, I was fortunate enough to watch a pack of these animals being re-introduced into the park, and several more releases have taken place since. In total, over 60 wild dogs are now recolonizing Serengeti — we haven’t seen any in our camera trap areas yet, but there are rumors that they might be wandering through soon!

 

Snapshot Serengeti’s “Lost Season”

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Over the last few years, you’ve helped us identify almost 2 million photos (since there are often multiple frames per “subject”, that’s actually about 5.5 million individual frames!). And you might remember that a few months ago the first 1.2 million of those were just made available to researchers everywhere. But along the way, a few (thousand) photos fell through the cracks for one reason or another.  Some sites didn’t get uploaded because of a quirk in the file structure. Some SD cards were corrupted and only months later the brilliant UMN IT department was able to recover the photos. Whatever the reason, we’ve accumulated 16,780 capture events that we’ve called “The lost season” — and we’ve added those images to the site today!

It’s a bit of a blast from the past — most of the images were taken in Seasons 3 and 4. But they’ve never been seen before…so go check it out! Who knows what you’ll find!

Notes from the field

Note: Meredith wrote this blog post, but is having internet problems in Africa, so I am posting it on her behalf.


Pole sana on the lack of recent field updates – it’s been a busy week or two and I’ve traveled halfway across Africa in the meanwhile! Sad to say, I’ve left Serengeti behind for now. I was able to set up almost all of the replacement cameras I brought down with me and completed three new rounds for my playback experiments. I then took a few days off and spent my birthday traveling around in Ethiopia, soaking in some history and culture (and eating really excellent food!). It’s nice to have a break from constant science every once in a while. I went around what is known as the “Northern Circuit” and visited the four historic cities of Gondar, Lalibella, Aksum, and Bahir Dar. I got to visit island monasteries, rock-hewn churches, the palace of the Queen of Sheba, and even made a trip to the church purported to be where the True Ark of the Covenant is kept! Have to say, the trip made me feel very “Indiana Jones”, right up until the point where I got ill from drinking the water…

After a week in Ethiopia, I flew down to Johannesburg, South Africa, to meet up with Craig and another graduate student we’re working with, Natalia. Natalia is interested in cognition and has been testing the creative problem solving and impulse control of different kinds of carnivores. We’ve spent the last few days at a reserve outside of Pretoria called Dinokeng, run by Kevin “the Lion Whisperer” Richardson. Kevin maintains a park with dozens of semi-captive lions, leopards, and hyenas which Natalia can work with for her intelligence experiments. While Natalia has been busy with her research, I’ve been putting together a rig that will enable me to examine herbivore responses to four predator species: cheetah, wild dog, lion, and hyena. Two of these predators (lion and cheetah) hunt by sneaking up on their prey, whereas the others (wild dog and hyena) rely on endurance to run prey down. I’m looking to see whether prey respond to each species of predator differently, or whether there are consistent differences in anti-predatory response by predator hunting type. I’ll be simulating predator encounters because it would be incredibly difficult to observe a sufficient number of actual encounters in the wild. As soon as I find a good internet connection, I’ll post pictures of just exactly how I plan on doing this — it’s pretty great, and I don’t want to ruin the surprise!

Just this morning, the three of us packed up all of our gear and took a small plane out of Pretoria up to South Africa’s Northern Cape province. We’ll be spending the next three to four weeks up here in the Kalahari conducting our experiments. In addition to looking at anti-predator responses, I’ll be helping to set up a NEW camera trap grid (perhaps Snapshot Serengeti will be joined by Kalahari Cameras sometime in the near future…?). Now that we’re back in action, more updates soon!

Serengeti Update #1

First field update! I’ve been out in Serengeti Park for just over a week now, and I’m fairly surprised to report that things are going rather swimmingly. It was certainly my smoothest travel experience from the USA to date: no plane delays (unlike last time), no missing luggage (unlike last time), no egregiously extended stay in Arusha waiting for permits (unlike last time).  To be sure, field life takes a bit of getting used to again. We’ve had spitting cobras in the bathroom, ververt monkeys breaking into my car, and little black flies are out in full force. But the Serengeti this time of year is completely worth it. Last time, my field season only encompassed the dry season, but in the current rainy period, Serengeti is a completely different place. Everything is so green it almost hurts your eyes to look at it. Up in Barafu, along the eastern edge of our camera trap grid, are herds of wildebeest, zebra, and buffalo so large you can hardly believe it. (My first time driving through a herd of buffalo several hundred strong required more courage than I’d care to admit – buffalo are big and mean and certainly warrant a healthy respect. They’ve been known to ram our field vehicles before and cause all sorts of trouble).

There’s a few projects I’m working on this year with the camera traps: first and foremost finishing up the playback experiments I began last season. Every morning for ten consecutive days, I’d head out to particular camera traps and play lion roars, simulating the short-term presence of predators in an area. We see from the camera traps that herbivores start to evacuate from these scary areas (or, “areas of artificially elevated predation risk”, to use a more scientific jargon) for not just days or hours, but periods of up to three weeks! I’m interested generally in the trade-offs that herbivores have to make between avoiding areas where predators are and still obtaining enough resources to get by. Do they only avoid areas where there’s a high chance predators will be, like lion territories, despite all the tasty forage that may be contained inside? Or is the avoidance being exhibited on a finer scale – like days to weeks, rather than months to years, like we’re seeing in this experiment? Perhaps there are some species of ungulates that don’t try and avoid predators on a spatial scale at all, but rather rely heavily on evasive and defensive behaviors when they encounter a hungry carnivore. Hopefully these continued experiments and the Snapshot data in general will help elucidate answers to some of these questions!

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speakers for playback setup

I’m also working on another round of habitat characterization – this time, we’re interested in the soils and vegetation that help to determine the forage quality at a particular site. Now, to tell the truth, I wasn’t originally that enthused about these particular collection tasks, but I’ve discovered that there’s incredibly satisfying about grubbing around in the mud scraping out soil samples. My inner 8-year old is feeling more rejuvenated by the day. Lion House is started to become more than a little cluttered with sample bags of dirt and grass clippings – pole sana, other field assistants, it’s for Science!

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bookshelf-turned-soil collection storage area

 

 

Season 8 Movie Time

Looks like everyone is sinking their teeth into Season 8! As a reminder, feel free to ask questions or chat with us through the Snapshot Serengeti Discussion board or in the comments of any of our blog posts.

Now, there’s some data from this new season that hasn’t made it online — sometimes, instead of taking pictures, our cameras accidentally switch into “video” mode and capture 10-second clips of animals doing their Serengeti thing. While this isn’t very good for us in terms of data collection (although we’ve been tossing around the idea of setting up a Snapshot Serengeti: Video Edition!…), it gives you a unique perspective on the lives of these animals.

(Okay, so it’s mostly animals eating grass. They eat a lot of grass. Perhaps not the most “unique” insight on their behaviors, but they’re still pretty fun to watch). Here’s some of my favorite accidental movies from our new Season!

 

(If you want more videos, Margaret has blogged some of her favorite movie clips from past seasons here and here)

Season 8 Release!

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for …  Can I present to you:

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SEASON 8!

I’m particularly proud of this, the first season that I’ve helped to bring all the way from the field to your computers. We’ve got a lot of data here, and I can’t wait for you guys to discover a whole host of exciting things in this new season.

This season is accompanied by IMPORTANT changes to our interface!

There’s a few more bits of data we think we can pull out of the camera trap photos this time around, in addition to all the great information we already get. One thing we’re particularly interested in is the occurrence of fire. Now, fire is no fun for camera traps (because they tend to melt), but these wildfires are incredibly important to the cycle of ecosystem functioning in Serengeti. Burns refresh the soil and encourage new grass growth, which attracts herbivores and may in turn draw in the predators. We have added a fire checkbox for you to tick if things look hot. Now, because we’re looking for things other than just animals, we replaced your option to click on “nothing there” with “no animals visible“, just to avoid confusion.

Some of the more savvy creature-identifiers among you may have noticed that there are a few Serengeti animals that wander into our pictures that we didn’t have options for. For this new season, we’ve added six new animal choices: duiker, steenbok, cattle, bat, insect/spider, and vultures. Keep an eye out for the following:

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This season runs all the way from September 2013 until July 2014, when I retrieved them this summer, my first field season. Our field assistants, Norbert and Daniel, were invaluable (and inhumanly patient) in helping me learn to navigate the plains, ford dry river beds, and avoid, as much as possible, driving the truck into too many holes. Together, we set out new cameras, patched up some holes in our camera trap grid, and spent some amazing nights camped out in the bush.

Once I got the hang of the field, I spend my mornings running around to a subset of the cameras conducting a pilot playback experiment to see if I could artificially “elevate” the predation risk in an area by making it seem as though it were frequented by lions (I’m interested in the reactions of the lion’s prey, and to see whether they change their behaviors in these areas and how long it takes them to go back to normal). I’m more than a bit camera-shy (and put a lot of effort into carefully sneaking up around the cameras’ blind spots) but perhaps you’ll catch a rare glimpse of me waving my bullhorn around blaring lion roars…

Back in the lab, there’s been a multi-continental collaboration to get these data cleaned up and ready for identification. We’ve been making some changes to the way we store our data, and the restructuring, sorting, and preparing process has been possible only through the substantial efforts of Margaret, over here with me in the States, and Ali, all the way across the pond, running things from the Zooniverse itself!

But for now, our hard work on this season is over – it’s your turn! Dig in!

P.S. Our awesome developers have added some fancy code, so the site looks great even on small phone and tablet screens. Check it out!

Mystery Animal

I’ve been slogging through some field data today, when this mysterious critter crawled across my screen. These are the only shots we got – check out those zebra-stripey tube socks in the first image and the strange feathery texture. Who here knows what we snapped a pic of?

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Everybody dance now!

Formerly titled: I love the Zooniverse, and all its ridiculousness.

Some of you might be familiar with the silly manoeuvres we undertake to trigger the camera traps in the field. The sensors on the cameras are best at capturing movement side-to-side, hence ridiculousness such as this:

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The Stan Dance

and this…

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Craig surprising the camera

and this.

“The Ali Dance”

Well, fellow Zoo-ites Rob and Grant have now generously attempted their own version of this last one. Check it out on the Zooniverse Advent Calendar here!! And, if you’re feeling especially brave, send in your own recreation to team@zooniverse.org!

Caught in the act

I am sure you were all enthralled by the recent shots of a male lion with a hyena clamped in his jaw. A truly awesome capture. The reality is that action shots like that are few and far between. Snapshot Serengeti has had only a handful in the millions of images that have been classified to date.

So when Karen and Deon Scheepers caught the following action on camera trap on the nature reserve in South Africa where I used to live I just had to share it with you;

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Wildebeest

 

uh oh.. look behind you!

 

leopard on the hunt

 

 

What a capture… a leopard on the hunt. The out come was unknown, reserve staff looked for a carcass but didn’t find anything. To think I used to walk those trails every day, I wonder how many times a leopard walked out behind me!

Thanks Karen and Deon Scheepers for sharing these shots.