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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.

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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.

 

Leopards; Most catty of cats?

This week I posted a great image of an elusive leopard on the Snapshot Serengeti facebook page. I have a real soft spot for these large cats that stems from my first foray into the world of camera-trap studies. Back then I lived on a small nature reserve in South Africa where leopards were the top predator. Without lion present and an abundance of prey the leopards thrived there and our study looked at the population density on the reserve. The interesting thing with the study was that we almost never physically saw a leopard on the reserve yet we were able to get heaps of camera-trap photos. It was although these leopards had learned that yes this was a great place to live, just keep your head down when one of those humans comes by.

I have been thinking about what draws me to leopards more than the other big cats of Africa and decided it’s the catty-ness of them. Now don’t get me wrong, lion and cheetah are definitely cat like too but somehow they are out done by the leopard.

Let’s take the lion. King of beasts they may be but really, hanging out in prides, what’s that all about. That’s what dogs do right? And cheetah, well with those only semi retractable claws and that speed over the plains, well, it could almost be a greyhound.

Now back to the catty-ness of leopards. Well they slink about, pounce on anything they can get away with, shoot up trees at the drop of a hat and generally act aloof just like you average house moggy. One more thing they share with their diminutive house cousins, they love to sit in boxes. Ok maybe not boxes but I have seen leopard tucked up all cosy in various natural alternatives. The picture below I took in the Kgalagadi where this leopard was sound asleep on top of a giant sociable weaver nest.

 

Leopard in weaver nest

 

 

The beautiful cryptic pattern of the leopard is one of its best adaptations that allow it to thrive in all kinds of habitats across Africa and Asia. Their coat pattern helps to break down their overall shape and they use broken terrain and vegetation to conceal their presence as they stalk close to prey and then ambush. More than capable of taking large prey leopards will happily snack on rodents, insects and small mammals if the opportunity presents itself. This camera-trap image shows a leopard with a zebra kill. The actual event was witnessed by a colleague who confirms that the leopard came out of nowhere and caught the zebra totally by surprise.

 

Leopard with zebra kill

 

Despite this seemingly remarkable ability to blend into the background leopard do not go unnoticed by man and recent studies have highlighted that leopard numbers too have plummeted as they are targeted for their skins, as trophies and just killed as pests. They seem to be declining in the same way they thrived, quietly and out of sight.

Weekly Round-up

This week we have had a lot of great images that our community of classifiers have flagged up for discussion. Numbers seems to have been the theme, with unusual sightings of two aardvark stepping out together, elephant herds and lion prides.

My favourite is the unusual grouping of three dikdik, almost certainly a family unit, all looking behind as a bushbuck saunters past.

So here is a taste of the action:

 

 

 

Hot air balloon

 

Zebra

 

Lion pride

 

What will you find this coming week? Don’t forget to share the best or the unusual with the rest of the community. Head over to https://www.snapshotserengeti.org/

 

Meet The Dikdik, Master Of Cool

 

Male dikdik

 

The Serengeti plains hold a wealth of wildlife familiar to us all. As long as our camera trap images are clear most people have no problem identifying wildebeest, zebra, giraffe and impala. It is some of the smaller antelope that prove a bit of a problem. The smallest of the Serengeti’s antelope, the dikdik is not so well known but what it lacks in size it makes up for in a fascinating life history.

So what makes this diminutive antelope so special and how does it survive living in the lion’s den, so to speak.

It is the antithesis of the wildebeest. Instead of running as a herd of thousands the dikdik live fairly sedentary lives, instead of a constant male battle for mating rights to a harem of females the dikdik forms pair bonds that last for life. Essentially it opts for a quite life under the radar. Living in bushy scrub and kopjes gives it plenty of places to stay hidden and its ability to reach up to 42km/hour enable it to escape even the swiftest of predators. Though of course dikdik do end up on the menu sometimes.

Dik dik are territorial and use dung, urine and scent to mark the boundaries. The scent comes from preorbital glands on the face which is rubbed on sticks. All members of the family will contribute to these markers but it is the male that does most of the work. The strange twist is that males are subordinate to females in the pair bond so really the male is marking and defending his mate’s territory for her. I guess it pays to keep your missus’ happy when you pair for life.

Obviously whilst holding a territory you will have neighbours and that is certainly the case for dikdik pairs but it seems that the peace is kept by making sure you only add more dung/urine/scent to your side of the heap. Dikdik must have the most defined territory of any antelope in the Serengeti. If there is a border dispute it can lead to mass pooping; as many as 10 dung piles per 100 meters which is three times as many as a normal border.

Traditionally there were thought to be 4 species of dikdik mostly restricted to East Africa with one, Damara dikdik, found in Namibia. New work suggests that the four subspecies of Kirk’s dikdik are actually full species making Cavandish’s dikdik (madoqua cavandishi) the species we are familiar with from the Serengeti. It’s hard to keep up with systematics.

One of the most amazing adaptations in dikdik’s is their central cooling system which allows them to live in arid, hot conditions. To cool down they increase their breathing rate from 1 to 8 breaths per minute. This passes over numerous blood vessels in the flexible proboscis (that oversized long snout that makes dikdik look so odd) cooling the blood. From here the cooled blood passes back to the heart through the cavernous sinus. Due to the large surface area in the sinus as hot blood is pumped to the brain a form of heat exchange takes place allowing cool blood to be pumped to the brain ensuring that brain function is not impaired by hot conditions even if body temperature is elevated. This is a trait that dikdik share with other dessert adapted animals such as oryx and camels.

So small it may be but the dikdik is not to be dismissed without some appreciation for its ability to survive in pretty harsh conditions.

World Lion Day

 

Lion image from the Chauvet replica Cave

 

World lion day was set up to raise awareness of the conservation issues facing lions today. The African lion, listed by the IUCN as vulnerable, and the Asiatic lion listed as endangered are facing the triumvirate threats of habitat loss, human conflict and poaching.

Most of you who read my blogs will probably be aware of the threats and today there will be some really informative media pieces out there on the web if you are not penned by the world’s leading lion conservation organisations.

I thought instead that I would concentrate on the other side of World Lion Day, which is the celebration of the animal itself.

The first time I saw lion in the flesh was in South Africa’s, Kruger National Park. A car was stopped seemingly watching two tawny eagles perched in a tree. Now being a bird lover I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to get a good close look at these birds so I stopped too. Gazing up admiring the birds I became aware of the occupants of the other car waving at me, trying to get my attention. They were frantically pointing down under the bushes, following their jabbing fingers I found what they wanted me to see, four  tawny legs poking out from under the bush, as if she heard me, up came a head, gave my presence a fleeting thought then slumped back down to sleep. My heart ready to burst with joy I grinned back at the car opposite then as I turned my glance back to the sleeping lion I caught a glimpse in my wing mirror that sent my heart racing. Two huge lions filled the mirror walking down the side of the car towards me. For an instant I forgot I was inside and a bolt of primal fear shot through me. But the lion were not interested in me, just the shade of the nice bush.

Lion have long been revered by man. The Eurasian cave lion has been immortalised by Palaeolithic man in cave art such as that found in Frances Lascaux and Chauvet caves. The Chauvet caves are thought to be the oldest rock art in the world dated at over 30 000 years old. Our very own Dr Craig Packer had the privilege to go into the caves to analyse these lion images. Only a handful of people have ever been inside the caves in an effort to preserve them.

Modern lions probably originated in eastern and southern Africa around 120 000 years ago where they then spread across Africa, south -eastern Europe, the Middle East, South Caucasus and into India. Ancient Greek writers suggest they were still present as recently as 100 BC in Greece and the Balkans. Lions survived in parts of Mesopotamia and Syria into the 19th century when the proliferation of guns saw their demise.

Their image, even today, is commonly used in heraldry as a symbol of strength, nobility, bravery or royalty. The ancient Greeks had many myths and stories of lion and their buildings and statues are resplendent with lions. It is easy to see why they are the most commonly used animal in heraldry. Even today in our jaded world lion are loved by many and as the example of Cecil the lion shows can elicit a huge emotional response from people the world over.

Let’s hope that on this World Lion Day that the tide can start to turn on the conservation fight for these glorious animals and we don’t lose that long history we have with the King of Beasts.

How Termites Shape the Serengeti

ser haartebeest.JPG

 

The Serengeti is one of the best examples of a fully functioning grazing ecosystem. It is home to the world’s largest body of free roaming herbivores. If you have helped classify snapshot Serengeti’s millions of camera-trap images you will know that wildebeest, zebra, topi, hartebeest, and gazelle to name a few are far more common than lion, cheetah and leopard.

Most people are aware of the millions of antelope that, along with the grasses themselves, shape this environment but they are not the only herbivores out there. There is a micro world down at ground level that is often forgotten about but which plays an enormous role in the functioning ecosystem; herbivorous insects such as grasshoppers, beetles ants and termites.

I want to take a look at termites. When most people imagine an African savannah they think of an endless vista of gently swaying grasses interspersed with the odd umbrella shaped tree and termite mounds. Termites are an integral part of the ecosystem here and it is thought that in terms of biomass they exceed the combined weight of the Serengeti’s mammals. They consume dead plant matter above ground (often during the night) then retreat underground where anaerobic bacteria in their stomach gets to work on breaking it down into a useable form, this is very similar to the process in ruminant herbivores.

Why are termites so important to savannah ecosystems? Well they serve multiple functions such as nutrient cycler’s, habitat architects and as food for other animals.

The daily activity of millions of tiny termites who bring dead vegetation into their underground homes helps to circulate nutrients with in the soil layer as well as aerating the soils themselves. If you ever get to look at a termite mound you will see that the grasses on them are often cropped short were as the surrounding area is full of long grass. This is because the grasses growing on the termite mound are particularly nutrient rich, thanks to the termites having created a nutrient hotspot and wildebeest, topi and zebras all know this and preferentially munch this grass.

Termite mounds shape the plains around them giving a relief to the flatness. Other animals such as topi, hartebeest and cheetah will use these small hills to climb onto to get a better view of their surroundings. In this flatness even a few inches of elevation could give an advantage. Many animals use termite mounds to create their own burrows.  Hyena, warthog and jackal will use them as dens but the master creator is the aardvark who does most of the excavating. Snakes, lizards and mongoose readily take to old mounds too.

Termites are nutritious critters themselves and almost any omnivorous animal will make a meal of them when the chance is offered. I remember seeing about twenty large raptors walking around on a dirt road in the Kruger Park looking like a flock of chickens gobbling up termites after an eruption.

Then there are the termite specialists, aardwolf can consume around a kilogram of termites in a night. Another predator is the ant, whispering ants will raid termite mounds grabbing worker termites, carrying two or three each at a time back to their own nests.

All in all termites are a hugely important part of the Serengeti ecosystem playing a vital role in so many lives be it nutrient provider, habitat provider or as food themselves. You will probably never classify a termite on snapshot Serengeti but it’s worth remembering just how important they are.