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A Spiky Surprise

There is one little animal in Europe that is loved by all, immortalised in children’s books, welcomed by gardeners and flagship of the realisation that our mammal populations may be declining due to our very own actions. Over in the States although not native these same creatures are kept as pets (that’s another story and not such a good one). Although it’s hardly a creature to cuddle or pet they are thought of as very cute, something to do with that snuffling around your garden in dry leaves and, getting all snoozy, having to sleep away the winter in a cosy corner. Yes, I write of the hedgehog.

Now, why, I hear you ask is she writing about a European mammal on a blog about the Serengeti? Well it may come as a surprise to some to find out that there are in fact 18 species of spiny hedgehog found across Europe, Asia and Africa. Six species are present in Africa. The North African hedgehog (Atelerix algirus) extends its range across the Mediterranean belt of North Africa and Iberian Peninsula as well as the Balearic and Canary islands. The long-eared hedgehog (Hemiechinus auritus) touches into Libya and Egypt and the desert hedgehog (Paraechinus aethiopicus) a true Saharan specialist. The last two species are also found through Arabia and Asia. The remaining three species are solely found in Africa; the southern African hedgehog (Atelerix frontalis), Somali hedgehog (Atelerix sclateri) and the four-toed hedgehog (Atelerix albiventris).

The four-toed hedgehog is found across West, Central and East Africa as far as the Zambezi River and so is the species that is found in the Serengeti. As far as I know we have never had a capture event from our camera traps of this enigmatic little creature but please let me know if someone has come across one.

In European culture where woodlands are seen as wildlife havens most people would associate the hedgehog with forests or at the very least the edges of forests and hedgerows where indeed this species is well at home but its African cousins are rather different in their habitat preferences. The four-toed prefers the drier regions and is partial to grasslands and according to The Handbook of the Mammals of the World vol 8 it especially likes overgrazed regions with dense ungulate populations. All that trampled grass and dung supports plenty of insects for it to munch. Well that sounds just like the Serengeti to me!

Although insects make up a large part of the diet they are omnivorous and will eat fungi and fruits as well as other plant matter. A little known fact, they will also kill small vertebrates like frogs, lizards and mice and are known to take on even venomous snakes. Their spines are great protection from the bite of an angry snake.

As formidable as those spines are it is the ability to curl up into a ball that is their true defence. Now they don’t just tuck their heads in and hope for the best, the skin that the spines are attached to is very flexible and is edged by a strong band like muscle that is attached to the forehead. When it is contracted it acts like a drawstring on a bag that holds in the body, head and limbs with the spines closing up the seal. It works remarkably well but inevitably certain animals have learned how to unzip the bag, honey badgers and eagle-owls are amongst those experts in the Serengeti.

As a family hedgehogs are known to perform a bizarre act known as self-anointing. The hedgehog will chew and lick a substance until it has a mouth full of saliva and then with acrobatic contortions it will plaster this saliva all over its body, apparently they do this in a frenzied manor and it is quite hard to distract them once in the process. What is unclear is why they do it. There is no obvious reason. Studies have shown every age group performing self-anointing including nestlings whose eyes have not even opened. They only thing that stands out is that strong smells and tastes seem to trigger the behaviour such as dog or fox urine and a whole host of human made items such as leather, polish or nylon stockings. I am not even going to ask what the scientific research question was when they discovered those three!

So from Mrs Tiggy-Winkle (Beatrix Potter) to sonic the hedgehog we may all be very familiar with this loveable creature but perhaps we don’t know all there is to know. Keep your eyes out for the first Snapshot Serengeti camera-trapping.

 

Atelerix_albiventris

Four-toed hedgehog

Image: Author Jkasui, Wikimedia, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

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Snapshot of a Crossroads

When we think of Snapshot Serengeti we think about the massive array of 225 camera-traps that are spread over 1125 km2 in the Serengeti National Park permanently clicking away. Partly this is fostered by the fact that when citizen scientists help out classifying images for the project they are randomly assigned images from a mixture of the 225 camera-traps rather than a sequential set from one camera. This is done so that each member of the community gets the chance to see a good range of different animals rather than, say, getting a camera-trap that was triggered 1000’s of times by grass.

For the most part anyway, people are concentrating so hard on the animals in the image that the scenery in the back ground is almost incidental. Regular contributors though will be aware that there are one or two camera-traps that are in very recognisable locations for example one trained on a group of boulders and one on a log. For some reason these spots seem to produce some really memorable images; the log was the scene of our melanistic serval as well as lion cubs, the boulder gave us some stunning images of spotted eagle-owl.

Recently the most epic capture event ever on Snapshot Serengeti surfaced of a pride of lions hunting a buffalo (if you missed it look here, https://www.facebook.com/SnapshotSerengeti/). That sequence was captured at a special little spot in the Serengeti, Dik-Dik Corner. The view is basically of a lone tree standing at a three-way cross road in animal tracks. There seems to be a pair of dik dik who hold this area central to their territory and they appear regularly, hence the name, but they are certainly not the only ones.

Here is a slide show of the passing wildlife at Dik Dik corner.

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Of course these are not the only critters to have passed this way but this selection really shows how the animals follow the trails, something camera-trap researchers have used to their advantage over the years.

Summertime

Butterflies on buddleia

 

Its summer time again and that means the research teams are out in the field collecting data. The Snapshot Safari team have been checking up on all the camera trap projects dotted across Africa and adding more to the list at the same time as clocking up adventure stories from their travels. Snapshot Serengeti’s Dr Michael Anderson and his team are continuing with their resource partitioning research in the Serengeti and using the opportunity to check up on the condition of our camera traps, probably, as they do each year, replacing one or two that have malfunctioned or been damaged beyond repair.

So whilst they are doing their part for science I am stuck here in France behind my computer catching up with report writing. Though being summer and me an ecologist it is so very easy to get distracted by the outside world.

This year has been a bonanza year for invertebrate locally. The spring started with a mass eruption of the invasive box moth (Cydalima perspectalis). Literally every blooming flower was coated, snow like with their white bodies; one lime tree in our garden we estimated at over 100 000 moths. The caterpillars have decimated the local box (Boxus spp) forests but I was beginning to wonder what effect the millions of moths would have on food resources for other insects. I needn’t have worried, the box moths have gone and summer blooms have brought out hundreds of other butterflies and beetles, bees and spiders. It is an entomologist’s heaven out there.

This seems to have had a knock on effect in the birds. Never have I discovered so many active birds’ nests near to my house. Several rounds of blackbirds, chaffinches and black red-starts have fledged already and the hedges have been awash with the calls of nightingales, black caps and wrens. The air positively rings with the sound of begging baby birds.

Just two meters from my balcony there is a chaffinch nest in the hibiscus with four babies ready to fledge. It is so close that I barely need binoculars to watch the goings on. This is always a great delight for an ecologist or naturalist because it gives you just that little bit more insight to the nesting habits of common birds.

At first appearance it seems just the female was caring for the young birds but then I realised that every time she arrived, flying in at the base of an adjacent bush and making her way to the nest in stealth mode there was another chaffinch calling loudly from a high point in a not too distant tree. It didn’t take too long to realise that this was the male acting as decoy to draw the attention of any would be predators away from the real action. Once the female finished stuffing hungry beaks with juicy insects and flew off, the male was right behind her only to reappear in his tree top squawking seconds before she arrived back with another beak-full.

Thanks to this pairs faith in nesting close to my house I have had lots of time to watch the great team effort of these little common birds.

So whilst feeling somewhat jealous of my team colleagues who are out enjoying themselves in the African sun it is worth remembering just how much goes on under our very own noses and just how wonderful nature is.

New and Improved Image Batch

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Last week the amazing community of classifiers on Snapshot Serengeti managed to complete the current batch of images. That doesn’t mean that this season is done with. It used to be that the whole season would be uploaded all at once on to the Zooniverse platform but these days with ever increasing image sizes and plenty more projects taking part space has become a bit of an issue. So now we upload in batches.

Normally we would have the new one ready to go straight away but as long time followers of Snapshot Serengeti may have noticed we have been having some image quality problems since swapping over to a new Panoptes platform.

We have finally found someone who is able to sort out this problem for us and he is working on it as we speak but the Snapshot Safari team decided that delaying the new batch of images for a short while to bring you better quality images to classify was worth the wait.

So we will be back shortly, new and improved and hope that it will improve your experience on the site.

In the meantime here is a sequence of cute elephant interaction captured in the last batch. Enjoy.

 

 

The Race

 

 

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.

Nervously attentive cheetah

 

The lioness quickly picks up the intruders scent and as Michael tells me used their vehicle as cover to stalk closer to the cheetah.

Lioness watching 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.

A Touch Of Colour

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!

 

Leucistic Waterbuck

 

 

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.

Mythical Mushrooms

Termitomyces schimperi

 

 

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.

 

Termite mound in Namibia

 

Welcome New And Old

Lion pride

So the new Snapshot Safari base camp for Snapshot Serengeti is a month old and teething problems aside all seems to be going well. I just wanted to take this opportunity to welcome all our new classifiers and to say a big thanks to all our old classifiers who have stuck with us. But most of all a massive thank you to our moderators who have worked so hard to make the transition run so smoothly. They have answered all your questions and queries without my back up due to the unfortunate timing of my own African field trip falling during the launch of Snapshot Safari.
It is not the first time Snapshot Serengeti has seen a big change. Some of you may remember its first outing as Serengetilive back in 2011. In those days things where a lot slower, you started classifying by first choosing an individual camera and working through it. There was an option to skip images, leaving them for someone else. Of course what ended up happening was all the hard to identify images and all the no animal grassy images were left to the end so that some people never got the chance to classify any animals.
We then progressed, in 2012, onto the Zooniverse platform and saw a huge change to the way things worked. Suddenly there was a lot more interaction between the scientists and the community. This was when the famous algorithms where developed by Margaret Kosmala and Ali Swanson and their team to act as a fail proof to anyone incorrectly identifying images.
We are all very grateful for their hard work and dedication that results in us classifiers being confident that our guesses won’t mess everything up.
So I hope that you are enjoying this third incarnation of Snapshot Serengeti and can be proud that it has worked so well over the years that it has spawned so many new projects.
My own field trip to Africa is coming to an end this week and I will be back in the land of internet connection. I will then hopefully be bringing you more regular posts and more updates on the project itself and how it is progressing. In the meantime don’t forget to check out our facebook and twitter pages.

Happy Birthday To Us

Camera-trap

 

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/

Kori bustard; Strutting its stuff in the Serengeti.

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I found this series of captures from one of the Snapshot Serengeti camera-traps. It shows nicely the way a kori bustard cruises around the savannah looking for things to eat. With males reaching up to 19kg these birds are Africa’s heaviest flying bird.  In order to get airborne these birds need a lot of space as they must run to gain momentum. Once airborne their big powerful wings mean they can fly at quite a speed. However they only fly when pushed spending most of their time walking sedately through grasslands.

Found in two main pockets, south, south west Africa and east Africa they favour flat arid open country. The Serengeti plains are ideal habitat. Here they amble around looking for a wide variety of food eating berries, seeds and other plant matter as well as lizards, snakes, rodents and birds. They are known to gather in quite some numbers where there are infestations of locust or other insects. Like other large ground birds recent fires also attract them where they search for scorched or injured small animals. Kori bustards are known to drink water using a sucking motion which is unusual for birds.

Not unexpectedly for such a large bird, they do not roost in trees preferring to bed down on the ground which is also where they build their nests. However they do like to choose a feature to build their scrape of a nest near, perhaps a rock  or tree stump or even a clump of grass. Not such a silly idea to choose a landmark in an otherwise featureless landscape.

A kori bustard chick is precocial meaning it can walk around almost as soon as it is born, very important for ground nesting birds. It shares a common trait with other ground nesters of having a cryptic plumage completely different to the adult plumage that helps conceal the young from predators. The stripy baby is also very cute.

 

Kori bustard chick

Credit: Photo by Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian’s National Zoo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Although the kori bustard does very well in the Serengeti outside of protected areas they have suffered like so many other animals from a reduction in numbers through loss of habitat and falling prey to hunters.