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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/

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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

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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.

The sound of silence?

Laying in my tent last night listening to nightjars whirring and barn owls screeching I was reminded of the sounds of Africa. As I am away this week with little internet time I thought I would repost this blog I wrote a few years back.

African sunset 1

What does silence mean to you? Maybe it’s that moment at the end of the day when the telephones stop ringing and the office hubbub finally stops and you can hear yourself think. Maybe sitting in your garden listening to the insects and aeroplanes pass overhead. Or maybe it’s that first 5 minutes of waking before the baby starts howling. Whatever it means to you the point is silence isn’t really silent. Something is always making a sound even if it’s a leaf rustling in the wind or a cricket singing.

In the African bush night time silence is deafening.  Just before sunset there is a rush of activity. The day shift starts looking for a place to spend the night whilst frantically searching out that last mouthful of food. Young banded mongoose are scolded into their burrows by older siblings. Antelope take a drink before heading to thicker cover. Francolins are calling out their staccato calls whilst sandgrouse flock to drink. As the sun sets and darkness looms everything quietens down, the last to make a noise are the guinea fowl who wait till it is just dark to, one by one, barrel up to adorn their favourite roosting trees like giant Christmas baubles. They finally settle down, and the nearby baboons stop squabbling and there is a moment’s peace before the night shift takes over.

African sunset 2

The Scops owl is first with its ‘poop poop poop’ call sounding almost like an insect.  Then the night-jars join in. A distant rasping bark and the jackal are off calling ownership of their territory. They stop suddenly and a moment later there it is, the slow wo-oop! Woo-ooop! and the hyena clan are declaring they are up for business.

There has been no respite to the constant noise of the African bush during this transition between day and night; a seamless mix between the two sound tracks. As the evening wears on and the night shift are out hunting in earnest it gets quieter.  If you are lucky enough to experience this it is unforgettable. The silence is thick, it hurts your ears and you want to shake your head to clear it. You are straining to hear anything out there in the blackness and your senses have you on high alert, never mind that you are in a vehicle your primal instinct knows this is Africa and beasts roam that want to eat you.

The only sound is a cacophony of insects and it is this that gets in your head, it is a relief when a spotted eagle owl calls breaking the pitch and giving you perspective again. Staring into the blackness you see a shape move , you can’t make out what it is, then comes a noise that goes right through you, a guttural, low sawing sound, a leopard is calling broadcasting its presence using the ground as a sounding board. He walks out in front of you, pauses for a moment, then strides off purposefully into the night.

The silence of the African night is palpable. You could slice it with a knife. It is so full of promises of wonderful animal encounters that I never want to sleep. It’s my favourite sound of silence; what’s yours?

Guinea-fowl flying to roost

World Environment Day

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Tree with Landrover

 

The 5th of June is world environment day. This event was created by the United Nations back in 1974 to promote awareness of our environment and to spur people globally to help protect it. Its celebration has never been more important than in today’s challenging times. All over the world people will be taking part in a host of events that celebrate our environment. Some have formed clean up events of local beaches or city parks. Others will be doing a bioblitz in their gardens or local reserves many will include children who will be inspired by searching out and identifying bugs. There will be events organised on the public scale such as awareness marches or environmental film screenings. Some folks will simply celebrate by stepping out in the open air to take a walk or picnic. Whatever the event you can be sure that a lot of people will be considering the environment this week and that can never be a bad thing.

Each year there is a theme, this year it is ‘connecting people to nature’ I thought this was particularly apt for us citizen scientists at Snapshot Serengeti. Through the millions of images we classify there is a strong connection to the rhythms of animals in the Serengeti. We get to appreciate the wide biodiversity of this immense ecosystem and for those of us unable to visit such a place it is a way to connect to a wild unspoilt place. It is a way to visit, virtually, leaving no carbon foot print as we would by flying there. I feel it is a privilege afforded us thanks to technology that I would not have even dreamed of 15 years ago.

Snapshot Serengeti is the perfect antidote to the doom and gloom decried each day by the newspapers. In a world where wildlife is dwindling and the finger is firmly pointed at us as the major cause of climate change Snapshot Serengeti feels like something positive and good. Something to give us hope that we might not have wrecked everything just yet. From our armchairs we not only experience the wonders of nature but at the same time we are actually benefiting science with our classifications. What can be better than that?

So if you have nothing else planned this #World Environment day why not jump on to Snapshot Serengeti and get classifying, better still see if you can recruit new classifiers, the more the merrier.

 

If you want to read more about world environment day visit this site.

http://worldenvironmentday.global/en

The Cycle of Life

 

The waterbuck just stood there, unfocused, staring at nothing. He didn’t move except for the gentle flare of nostrils and rise of ribs as he drew breath. About 8 to 10 minutes went by and still not even a twitch of an ear to dislodge an annoying fly.  Then as if released from a spell his drooping head rose a little and he took a step or two towards the stone bird bath where he took a few long draughts of water. After that he slowly walked of through the bushes and out of sight.

I couldn’t quite understand his behaviour thinking perhaps that he was ill. Although he sported a magnificent set of horns his coat looked more than a little out of condition and he looked thin. For a waterbuck to be this close to the house in the middle of the day was unusual. He was less than a meter from me; if the glass window wasn’t there I could have reached out and touched him.  I didn’t see him again after that encounter until about 5 days later. Sitting on my stoop I could smell a whiff of something dead, not an unusual smell when you live in the bush, so I went exploring following my nose.  It didn’t take long to find him. He was tucked in, sitting down, between the banking and a large boulder. First I thought he had fallen but actually he looked so peaceful I think he lay down in a position that he felt protected in and let his life ebb away.

You see on closer inspection I found his teeth to be worn away to almost nothing. This is common in antelope, if they make it through life without being preyed upon or succumbing to disease then they often die from starvation when the teeth, worn down to nubs, are unable to cope with the tough vegetation it survives on through the dry season. That vacant stare I had seen is something I have witnessed in starving antelope before. So although I couldn’t rule out disease (I am no medical expert) my guess from his behaviour and condition was that he had passed away with old age.

My quandary now was what to do with him. I could leave him be and let nature take its decomposing course (and this is what I would normally do) but that would mean I was going to live with an ever more nauseating death smell for a few weeks which believe me is not good. On the other hand pulling a 200kg animal out from a snug hole was not going to be easy. To cut a long story short I called for backup and with ropes and much holding of noses we got the waterbuck out and dragged him down to the river side. I sat there all day waiting to see if a croc would come and take the waterbuck or perhaps a hyena or vulture. Disappointed that none of natures garbage collectors came I walked off home just before dark.

First light the next day off I went back to the scene. Nothing. Not even a drop of blood. I can only conclude that the crocs did indeed come under the cover of dark and dragged the carcass into the depths where nature’s great cycle of life and death continued to the crocs advantage.