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.
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.
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.
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.
I promised I would have some news about what the Serengeti team has been up to recently in the field. Our beloved camera-trap grid is still being cared for, cards downloaded, batteries replaced and cameras given the once over. So all is well on that front but what is the latest question being asked by the team.
Well thanks to the spatial occupancy modelling of the Snapshot Serengeti camera-trap grid we have learned a lot about how the animals share the environment. What we can’t derive from the camera trap images is the details of what the different species are doing when they are in those spaces and how so many large herbivores can exist together. It could be that they simply facilitate each others foraging or maybe they are using different resources. Scientists have identified what is known as niche partitioning, a mechanism that sees different species specialising in eating different proportions of grasses verses non-grasses; pure grazers and pure browsers and a sliding scale between the two. A second mechanism sees different species eating different parts of the same plant.
These two mechanisms seem to make perfect sense but it is not understood to what extent these two truly affect coexistence of large herbivores. This is where the Snapshot Serengeti team research comes in.
Under our own Dr Michael Anderson they have teamed up with Dr Rob Pringle and researchers at Princeton University in using a revolutionary new analysis method known as DNA metabarcoding to see what exactly each animal is eating.
Up until recently scientists studying herbivore diet had two choices, they could watch their subjects and try to identify what they were eating or they could use microhistology, whereby plant parts in faeces are visually identified. As you can imagine these methods are fine for differentiating between, say, grasses and trees but don’t allow scientists to classify down to individual plant species. With DNA metabarcoding they now have that ability and it should tell us a whole lot more about how the animals divide their resources in space and time.
So that’s the science but how does the team collect this data. Well as with microhistology it involves dung. Our intrepid scientists are roaming the Serengeti collecting poop from as many different herbivores as they can and then it all has to be shipped back to the labs for analysis.
If you are thinking that our team must be highly skilled detectives able to identify a wide variety of brown pellets in the savannah grasses then think again. That’s not to say they can’t but this work relies on 100% knowing which species produced said dung its sex and age as well as a sample that has not been contaminated in anyway. The method of collection relies then, on stealthy observation waiting for an individual to lift its tail and sprinkle the ground with brown pellets before running in with your sample jar at the ready to collect the freshly deposited “clean” offerings. I have some experience with this work and believe me it does feel slightly odd to be observing animals in this way, willing them on to have a bowel movement so you can move on to the next species. It is also a little risky as you can get so engrossed at watching your target animal that you forget there are predators there watching and waiting. At least in this project it is only herbivores the team are interested in, to do the same with predator’s faeces, that’s a whole lot more smelly.
The study is still in its early stages but the team reports they are already seeing some noteworthy things.
Spoiler alert, early results suggest that there are only two ‘pure’ grazers in Serengeti (zebra and warthog) and lots of variation between wet and dry season.
We will bring you further updates once the team has finished their analysis work and have the full results. It promises to be exciting stuff. In the meantime you can think on the glamorous job a field scientist has whilst you stay clean at home helping with the job of classification.
Recently the science team behind Snapshot Serengeti, lead by Dr Michael Anderson, were wandering around the plains going about their latest research (more about that soon) when they got to witness a sight of high intensity, namely a bit of large predator interaction.
The drama occurred around an area known as the Maasi Kopjes. The team at this stage were in their vehicle, as a lioness was nearby, when they noticed a lone cheetah wandering into the lioness’s territory.
The cheetah is obviously anxious as can be seen in this image.
The lioness quickly picks up the intruders scent and as Michael tells me used their vehicle as cover to stalk closer to the cheetah.
Initially the cheetah was unaware of its impending doom but the lioness’s indignation at the intrusion possibly affected her stealth and the cheetah finally noticed her approach.
The race was on. The big cat race.
From these shots you can see the sudden acceleration of the cheetah and yes, it got away, living to see another day and the lioness happily securing her domain on her territory.
Perhaps you will be lucky enough to see both these animals on our camera-traps!
Thanks to Dr Michael Anderson for sharing his Photo’s with us.
After my latest field trip to Namibia I was fortunate enough to spend a few weeks visiting some old haunts in South Africa. Even though I had very little time and no real scientific purpose other than curiosity I could not help but put out my camera traps whilst I was there. It was after all a nature reserve and surprises can happen.
One of the camera traps was located on a well used animal track that lead from the bush down to the river. The rains had not thus far been kind in that part of Africa and the bush was rather dry with little standing water so I was confident the track would offer some interesting images. As expected I had lots of images of vervet monkey, warthog, impala, nyala and waterbuck. Imagine my surprise then when I scrolled through 20 or so images of a small herd of waterbuck does with young to find this fluffy looking white thing that looked more like a sheep!
In fact it was a leucisitic waterbuck. Not to be confused with albinism, which is a condition caused by absence of melanin leading to pale skin, hair, feathers and eyes, leucism is defined as a partial loss of pigmentation that leads to an animal appearing pale or patchy but often with patterns still showing. The eyes in animals with leucism are normally coloured never the red that can occur in albinism. So albinism is a lack of melanin and leucism is a partial lack of melanin.
You can see this little waterbuck still has the distinctive bulls eye target ring around its rump that distinguish the common water buck from the Defassa waterbuck we are used to in the Serengeti proving it is leucistic not albino.
Regardless of which of the two conditions it has the young animal will have a tough time. The pale colour makes it stand out as a target to predators and it is thought that survival rates for leucistic animals are low. That’s not to say it won’t make it to adult hood, in fact the white lions of the Timbavati are a well followed case of leucism in a population that every now and then throws up a white cub or two, they are so well watched that it is known that some do survive into adult hood. From those few individuals stem most of the white lions that can be seen in captivity in zoos all be it showing all kinds of horrible traits of constant inbreeding.
After finding these images I was lucky enough to spot the herd with my own eyes. I watched the little leucistic waterbuck playing and frolicking with a like aged normal waterbuck and for all the world you wouldn’t know what all the fuss was about. The two were identical in every way except the pure chance of a mutated gene governing colour. Good luck to the pair of them.
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.
Whilst we wait for the next batch of Snapshot Serengeti images to be processed and posted up for us to classify I thought I would regale you with a short tail from my recent field work in Namibia. I was based on a cattle farm near to the small town of Otjiwarongo. One of the highlights, apart from the wealth of wildlife living alongside the cattle came as a total surprise. Mushrooms, giant, dinner plate sized tasty mushrooms.
Who would have thought to discover such a delicacy in the thorny scrubby bush of north eastern Namibia, a place normally thought of as desert.
I was out driving the boundaries of the farm with the owners one Saturday morning when they came to an abrupt stop and started reversing backwards. When we stopped they jumped out as if for action crying Omajowa! Thinking this was some Herero word for poacher or something similar I prepared myself for action too following them towards a very tall termite mound.
Omajowa were no poachers, they were giant mushrooms growing all around the base of the termite mound and according to my hosts, delicious. They expertly plucked a few out to take home for dinner and to share amongst the staff. We ate them cut into large chunks, breaded then fried like a schnitzel. Yes they were a taste to behold I can tell you.
The Ejova (singular, Herero name) or termitenpilz (German Namibian name) is the mushroom species Termitomyces schimperi. Termitomyces species are found over much of West, East and Southern Africa and live in association with various termite species.
In Namibia omajowa are found on the mounds of the termite Macrotermes michaelseni that build very tall mounds reaching heights of 5 meters tall. It has been noted that these often incline to the north.
The termites cultivate the fungus by providing a perfect substrate and perfect microclimate for the fungus to grow whist eliminating any competitors to the fungus. In return the fungus helps break down plant material aiding the efficient uptake of nutrients for the termites as well as providing additional food sources from its own body that are rich in nitrogen.
The omajowa, like most fungus is for the most part concealed away below ground but when conditions are right, in this case after a good rainfall between December and March the more familiar fruiting body emerges from the base of the termite mound growing on a stalk up to 50cm high with a cap that can reach 40cm diameter. Usually in groups of 5 to 10 up to 50 on one termite mound have been recorded in Namibia. They are really quite a sight.
From a cultural perspective they are seen by Namibians as a symbol of growth and prosperity and they are eagerly sought out. It is not unusual to see someone standing on the road side hefting one of these giants up in the air in an invitation to stop and buy from him.
Once pulled from the ground they have a strangely alien appearance with the dangling pseudorhiza (root like structure) still attached, though it is probably more ecologically sound to leave most of the pseudorhiza behind. The termites will feed on this and the remaining fungus will carry on growing to pop up another year. Like everything in nature, sustainable thoughtful use should be practiced in order preserve the delicate balance of life.
Camera-trapping has vastly opened up the possibilities of studying animals in the field in a relatively unobtrusive manner. Leaving a bunch of camera-traps clicking away 24/7 over a long period is generally cheaper than employing researchers to stay in the field providing them with accommodation, food and vehicles.
However it has its drawbacks. Good field skills are only learned over time spent in the field and although field researchers cannot operate 24/7 like the camera-traps they are less impartial observers noticing all kinds of fine details surrounding that which they study.
It is these observations that stimulate and inform new scientific questions and drives the understanding of the world around us. I am not suggesting that the results of camera-trap studies can’t also do this but since the days of the first naturalists it is being in the field that nurtures the very interest in studying wildlife in the first place.
The researcher who knows their study area well will be at an advantage to one who has planned from afar after using GIS. I know because I have been both. My first camera-trap project was on a reserve where I had lived for three years and that helped me know intuitively where I should place my camera-traps. On the other hand my latest project involved a very fine time window and I had to set up camera-traps on an unknown farm within two days of arriving. By the end of the 8 week period I was just starting to get a better feel for the place and could have kicked myself for not placing my cameras in the optimum places. When I went back to collect the cameras I found myself wading thigh high through a carpet of small yellow daisy-like flowers that left me coated waist down in a yellow stain. Had I have known the farm better realised this plant grew only in a few areas and could have avoided it entirely and saved myself the turmeric skin wash and a lot of miss-triggers.
My latest trip to Africa reminded me of why living in the field is so rewarding. Whilst the camera-traps are diligently collecting your data it gives you the chance to observe without frantically thinking of your research question, you can take time to take inspiration from the broader environment.
Near my tent was an old dead knob thorn tree that had five white-browed sparrow-weaver nests hanging like straw balls from it. Each night at dusk a pair of sparrow weavers would fly into the tree, call loudly as if claiming the spot and the female would dive into her preferred nest. The male would remain up high above waiting. Just as the last light was fading 3 or 4 small dark shapes would arrive and the sparrow weaver would chase after them squawking disapproval. Having seen them off he would come back and settle himself into the nest of his choice retiring for the night. Watching closely revealed, a few minutes later, the return of the invaders; two pairs of black-faced waxbills. They alighted at the top of the tree and cautiously made their way down towards the remaining nests finally one by one slipping quietly into the unused nests one couple per nest.
The thing about this little drama was that it was played out every night for over two months. None of the birds seemed to alter their routine and none where actively breeding at the time, they just had their bed time ritual. This was the kind of observation that the camera-traps will never quite capture as well as a human. In just the same way, although Snapshot Serengeti would not exist without the cameras it would be nothing without the human, citizen scientists behind the scenes sorting out the images. Even with computer recognition programs on the horizon I believe it would be foolish not to still use humans who’s innate sense of life will always pick up on something that is slightly odd, unusual or different about an image.