Data collection is the back bone of field research work and can sound glamorous and exciting to those who are office bound but I will let you into a little secret, it can be exhausting and frustrating and unrewarding too.
Firstly, you have to remember that researchers often work in remote places and whilst this is amazing it does lead to some logistical nightmares. Take for instance my recent experience. My task was to visit 18 Ilchokuti or lion guardians from KopeLion to collect the data they had recorded during the previous month. Now they are spread out over 1300k2, in itself quite a distance but when you factor in the rough at best, non-existent at worst roads you begin to have an idea of the task. I would be lucky if it didn’t rain, that would only add to the woes. Another thing to remember is that, barring a few lucky people working for high profile organisations, most researchers have to nurse their aged vehicles along, fixing things as you go. This trip wasn’t too bad as we seemed to only suffer from door catches failing so nothing a bit of string or a Leatherman wouldn’t fix. The budgets just never seem to run to decent cars.
Just as I was about to feel smug about the lack of rain hampering our journey it dawned on me that dry conditions held their bad points too. Dust! The fine dust covering some of the landscape here is deadly. It penetrates everything and with a three-day trip planned with no opportunity for a shower, boy does it get tiring. Forget enjoying the scenery as you drive, you mostly feel as if you are in a cloud only with a yellow tinge that makes it hard to breath in place of the fluffy white.
Anyway, I can’t really complain it was a wonderful three days and meeting up with a couple of our guys in the middle of nowhere under a great baobab tree acting as our office for an hour or so was something to make you smile.
My colleague, Meritho Katei, over in the Serengeti has an even harder job under similar conditions. I was simply rendezvousing with other people, collecting and issuing data sheets and downloading GPS data. Meritho is trying to pick up on the lion monitoring for the Serengeti Lion project that has been on hold for a while.
His task is to reconnect with the prides of lions previously being followed and studied and to catch up on the family histories. New members need to be identified, files made on them and changes in pride composition noted. He is working with the Snapshot Serengeti camera trap data to see where the prides are hanging out but of course we aren’t quite up to date with the classifying so that’s not the greatest help. Instead he is relying on a lot of kilometres driving, following up on tourist sightings and tracking data and a good set of eyes to track down the prides and observe them.
So as I washed the dust out of my hair, luxuriating in a hot shower after my three day successful, mission accomplished trip, I had to reflect that poor Meritho was in for many months of hard slog catching up with those lions and with the rains coming things are about to get even harder. Good luck Meritho!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Symbiotic relationships are common in the Serengeti. They fall into two main types, mutualism, whereby both partners benefit from one another and commensalism, whereby one partner benefits from the actions of the other but the other partner is largely unaffected or unharmed. I wrote recently of oxpeckers and large herbivores, large herbivores provide food in the form of ticks for the oxpeckers and oxpeckers provide a cleaning service for the large herbivores, a good example of mutualism. Birds such as cattle egrets that follow buffalo around to catch the invertebrates the buffalo disturb as they graze is an example of commensalism. Of course it is not just animals that have symbiotic relationships; my blog last week on termites and mushrooms was another example of mutualism.
So what about zebras and wildebeests? We see them all the time on Snapshot Serengeti in mixed herds, grazing peaceably with one another. Is this just coincidence or is this a form of symbiosis?
It is actually hard to say and of course that is why labelling things, especially behaviour is often tricky.
Zebra and wildebeest are both grazers meaning they mostly eat grasses but that doesn’t mean they share the same diet. They preferentially eat different parts of the plants that they consume. Zebras are quite content chewing longer tougher grasses where as wildebeest prefer shorter, more tender shoots. This partition of resources means they can quite happily graze side by side with out exerting pressure on each other.
Another good reason to team up is the extra safety that numbers provide. Not only do more ears and eyes provide better early warning systems but the odds of the individual being targeted by a predator are reduced when there are greater numbers to choose from. Apparently zebra have better eyesight but wildebeest have better hearing so the two complement each other.
There could be another reason. Our very own Meredith Palmer just published a paper about interspecies reaction to each other’s alarm calls, you can read it here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0003347217304207
She found that zebra, wildebeest and impala recognise each other’s alarm calls but that they did not always respond in the same manner. When zebra sounded the alarm all three herbivores reacted strongly but when impala gave the alarm zebra where likely to ignore it, or assess the relative danger themselves. It seems that this varied response is down to predator size. Impala are prey to a wide range of smaller predators that would not be able to handle a mammal the size of a zebra, so when impala give the call it doesn’t always signal danger for the zebra. However when a zebra, the largest of the three herbivores sounds the alarm, whatever it has seen will probably be able to take down the wildebeest or the impala too so it’s prudent that all three scarper.
It is an interesting reaction and maybe wildebeest hang out with zebra because they are more trustworthy alarmists. I am not sure that the companionship of zebra and wildebeest can be classed as symbiotic I think it is more of an interaction due to a shared habitat but it seems that on some level they can benefit each other.
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/
I thought I would write about wildebeest this week, it seems we take them for granted a bit. Certainly on Snapshot Serengeti they generate about the most images and it has been commented in the past “No, not another wildebeest”. The Serengeti is after all world famous for its wildebeest.
But what do you know about them, other than the roam around in large herds and get eaten by lions, leopards, hyenas and crocs?
Well ecologically they have evolved in a fascinating way. They are heavily dependent on water, never straying more than 20km or so from it. However, their square looking lips are designed for nibbling at short grass swards that are found in drier, fire maintained grasslands like that of the Serengeti and they are unsuited to wetter areas of equatorial Africa where grasses become tall and rank. They are bulk grazers that operate in large herds. Wildebeest are not especially fast runners having a body shape that favours their digestive tract, instead they rely on the size of the herd for protection. Unlike their close cousins, the hartebeest who are designed to outpace predators, wildebeest have proportionately shorter legs and males develop sturdy thick necks.
We have all seen footage of the migration with nervous looking wildebeest stampeding along, hell bent on reaching their destination. What you may not know is that this mass getting together stimulates the rutting state in both sexes. In amongst the moving herds males try desperately to mark out and keep a small territory from which he cavorts around noisily evicting other males and trying to impress a few females to mate with. The problem is he has to keep moving with the herd so these territories are very temperal and really only exist in his mind and he has to move on every day or so in order to keep up with the ladies. There are always a few males left in the wake of the procession that get caught up with fighting each other and trying to hold territories without realising the females have all gone. Once the migration has reached its destination everything calms down a bit and things get back to normal, breaking up into smaller groups until it’s time to do it all again.
Wildebeest no longer exist in their historic numbers. They are particularly affected by land use changes, susceptible to domestic live stock diseases and are targeted by poachers. Their dependence on water, quality short grasslands and large herd size means they don’t fare well on marginal land. However it’s not all bad news. Wildebeest are well represented in national parks across their range in Africa.
Well it is that time of year again when the winners of the prestigious wildlife photographer of the year awards are announced.
Having a browse through this year’s winners I notice with a touch of sadness but a good dose of hope just how many of the photos touch on the demise of wildlife and have a conservation message. Brent Stirton’s moving image of a poached black rhino although tragic is a strong weapon in itself in the fight to change the hearts and minds of those people that covet rhino horn.
One of my favourite images is in the bird behaviour category. The much maligned marabou stork is the subject and the shot was taken in the one spot on this planet that Snapshot Serengeti fans know so well, yes the Serengeti.
But the story doesn’t end there. The photographer who was awarded finalist in the bird behaviour category is well known to us. Daniel Rosengren worked for the Serengeti Lion project for 5 years in the field with the most enviable job going. He spent every day following the study lions getting to know them intimately and generally building up the rich source of study data that this 30 year+ project has gained.
Of course when Dr Ali Swanson came up with her wonderful idea of seeding the area with 200 odd camera traps and the Snapshot Serengeti project was born it was Daniel who looked after our precious cameras for several years. So we have a lot to thank him for.
Daniel moved on from the project in 2015 to pursue a career as a professional wildlife photographer and we congratulate him on his achievement this year in the wildlife photographer of the year award. Well done!
If you want to learn more about the story behind his image or just want to see some stunning wildlife images visit his website here http://danielrosengren.se/wpy-awardee/
And to see all the other winners from this year’s wpy 2017 visit
The Snapshot team have written another paper using the Snapshot data we all help to classify. The paper A ‘dynamic’ landscape of fear: prey responses to spatiotemporal variations in predation risk across the lunar cycle can be found at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ele.12832/full for those of you interested in reading the original.
Lead by Meredith Palmer the paper explores how four ungulate species, buffalo, gazelle, zebra and wildebeest respond to predation risk during differing stages of the lunar cycle. These four make up the bulk of the African lion’s diet in the Serengeti along with warthog. Of course warthog are strictly diurnal so are not affected by the lunar cycle as they are tucked up nice and snug in a burrow.
For the other four night time can be a stressful time. None of these animals sleep all night, they snatch rest here and there, keep grazing and most importantly of all keep a watchful eye or ear out for possible attack.
It has long been thought that prey species territory is shaped by fear and that animals have safe areas (where they rest, give birth, etc) and risky areas where they instinctively know predators may be lurking. These areas trigger a risk versus reward response as they often contain better forage/water etc.
What Meredith and the team argue is that this landscape of fear is very much dynamic changing not only with seasons and night and day but on a very much finer scale as influenced by light availability through the moon.
Lions find it so much easier to hunt during nights where the moon gives of least light. It gives them a great advantage to stalking close to their prey using the dark as a kind of camouflage. The prey species, on the other hand, are at a distinct disadvantage, they can’t see the stalker and even if they sense its presence they are reluctant to flee as this presents a great risk in itself if they can’t see.
Meredith and her colleagues took the data from Snapshot Serengeti to quantify nocturnal behaviour of the key species using the presence or absence of relaxed behaviour (defined when we classify a species as resting or eating.) They then overlapped this with data collected through Serengeti Lion Project on lion density and hunting success. This data enabled them to work out what areas where high or low risk to the prey species. Using a clever statistical program, R, the data was analysed to see if lunar cycle had any bearing on animal behaviour, in particular, predator avoidance.
They found that moonlight significantly affected the behaviour of all four species but in a variety of ways. As we mentioned before there is often a good reason to venture into the high risk areas and the trade off in increased risk of predation is a really good feed. Buffalo for instance don’t change their use of space so much but were found to form more herds on dark nights. It seems safety in numbers works well for buffalo. Zebra react similarly in their herding activity but are much more erratic when it comes to space use, moving around a lot more randomly keeping potential predators on their toes.
Each species showed an aversion to using high risk areas at night but, particularly wildebeest and zebra, were found to increase their use of these areas when the moons luminosity was higher and safety increased. It was noted that high risk areas where avoided more frequently in the wet season than the dry. The thought being that there is increased hours of moonlight during the dry season that the animals take advantage of. Perhaps too the drive to find enough good food is a factor.
This paper serves to remind us that although what we do at Snapshot Serengeti is fun it is more than just a way for us classifiers to pass the time. It really has a very significant role in science and that role is ever increasing.