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.
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.
Here on the Snapshot blogs we seem to concentrate on talking about the animals that populate the Serengeti. Of course these are the subjects of our many camera-trap images (oh, apart from those annoying over grown vegetation ones) and they are loved by us all but for once I thought I would talk about the Serengeti itself. Monitoring the animals that live in the Serengeti is a valuable way to assess the health of the landscape but to get a true idea of the state of play the whole ecosystem needs to be looked at. More and more scientists are realising that a holistic approach is needed to truly understand what makes an ecosystem tick and how to preserve it. Studying lion without looking at their connection to wildebeest and grass is like studying maths by looking at the numbers without the plus or minus signs.
So we have all heard of the Serengeti but what do we really know. It surprises me how many friends don’t actually know what country it is in. The Serengeti National park, where our 225 camera-traps are located is in Northern Tanzania bordering Kenya’s Maasai Mara National park. The two together with the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and other private game reserves make up the Greater Serengeti Ecosystem which protects the area of the great migration. It is easy to see where the confusion comes from.
Everyone has heard of the wildebeest migration but did you know that it is one of the largest animal migrations in the world that has not been drastically altered by humans, there are no barriers to impede the movement of the millions of animals that seek fresh grazing and water. The 1000km circular migration route sees around 500 000 zebra, over 1 million wildebeest followed by hundreds of thousands of other ungulates annually. All this is still able to happen thanks to the protected status of the entire ecosystem.
The Serengeti National Park itself is made up of around 1.5 million hectares of savannah. Flat or undulating plains covered in grasses which are nourished with ashy soils derived from nearby volcanoes dominate the landscape. Rocky out crops known as kopjes punctuate the flatness with infrequent river courses and their riverine habitat easing the monotypic view.
So what triggers the massive ungulate migration and all the inherent predator action? At the onset of the dry season grasses begin to dry out and water becomes scarce, ungulates are forced to follow their nose to find food and water. Luckily nature is well designed and there is a well defined gradient across the migratory path that sees differences in place and time for abiotic factors such as rainfall, temperature and soil type. It is these factors that govern what vegetation grows where and how available water is and of course where the millions of hungry herbivores can move to next to satisfy their needs. Once settled across the Mara River they can last out the dry season in the mixed savannah woodlands where food is not so scarce. But the pull of the plains is always there and with the onset of the rains back they go thundering towards the Serengeti once more in a tradition that has possibly been around for over a million years.
The area is the last remaining example of a large mammal dominated ecosystem that existed across much of Africa during the last 1.8 million years. With its relatively intact biodiversity and sheer size it is easy to see why scientists flock to study both the individual species that occur here and functioning of the ecosystem as a whole. Sadly there are not many places like it left on Earth.
Across the African Savannahs many different birds can be seen strutting around on long legs, a perfect adaptation, often coupled with long necks, to give them a higher vantage point to see over the long grasses. We are talking about ostrich, korhaan, ground hornbill and storks to name a few. All these birds use the same method of steadily walking through the grass picking of preferred prey items; grass itself in the case of the ostrich.
One of the most fascinating to me is the secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius). Reportedly named for its resemblance to a medieval scribe with a quill behind his ear other sources suggest the name is a Francophile corruption of the Arab word saqr et-tair which translates to hunter-bird. Whatever the origins of its name the frond of spatulate nape feathers and the elongated central tail feathers easily distinguish this bird.
It is something of an enigma taxonomically speaking, making up its own unique family, Sagittariidae. It seems secretarybirds are related to eagles sharing skull structure and a type of feather lice. Currently aligned to diurnal birds of prey it has previously been thought of as a relative of storks and cranes. Indeed its breeding behaviour is very similar to that of storks, which to make things more complicated are also share a close affinity to birds of prey.
Taxonomic complexities aside secretarybirds do look like elongated hawks, they share that hooked bill and yellow cere common in birds of prey, they also possess a large gape which allows them to open the bill wide enough to swallow large prey whole. But it’s their feet that do all the work.
The modus operandi for a secretary bird is to stalk along quietly and stomp its prey with a torrent of fast powerful kicks to dispatch it. This method is used for a number of prey items such as arthropods, rodents, amphibians, game birds even mongooses. In fact anything, really, that can be subdued and killed by its deadly kicks is fair game. That said it is the secretarybird’s ability to despatch snakes that has endeared it to most Africans.
To sneak up on a snake and then kill it quickly takes a lot of skill and you best not make a mistake otherwise in the African bush you may end up the one dying.
A study led by Dr. Steven Portugal, from Royal Holloway, University of London found that although other birds of prey strike their prey with far more force this is enhanced by the momentum of their entire bodies plunging down from flight. The secretarybird is able to exert a force 5 times greater than its own body weight from standstill and can repeat this accurately with multiple kicks being delivered at a speed of 15 milliseconds each. Fast and furious, that’s how this bird tackles deadly snakes and biting mongoose.
If you are interested you can read the paper here. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982215014839
June through August is a busy time for scientific researchers. They get to leave their desks and all that computer stuff and go visit their study area. Snapshot Serengeti’s resident researcher Meredith is lucky enough to be in the Serengeti as I write and she has shared a few recent experiences with me.
She is currently setting up a new camera-trap array in Grumeti Reserve which borders the Serengeti National Park in the north west. This area was created as a buffer zone to the Serengeti National Park to help protect the western corridors of the famous wildebeest migration of the Serengeti/Mara ecosystem. Grumeti in turn is bordered by villages and has one of the fastest growing human populations around the Serengeti Park. Traditionally these communities hunted for bushmeat to supplement their diets but with the rise in population it is doubtful if this is still sustainable.
Meredith has been out this week following the migration as it moves along Grumeti’s northern border. As well as setting camera-traps and marvelling at the numbers of wildebeest she has also seen the darker side of conservation that almost anyone working in protected wildlife areas in Africa is familiar with; poaching. She reports that they have been removing snares daily and that distressingly they found 4 snared wildebeest within a half hour, two were dead, one had a broken leg and had to be killed but miraculously they were able to release one. Whilst trying to select camera-trap spots Meredith and her team encountered poachers butchering a fresh caught wildebeest, they were able to give chase, alas to no avail.
In areas like this the locals know well the movements of the animals and they will seed the area with thousands of wire snares. Anti poaching teams are kept even busier during migration time knowing this too. The anti poaching team, well trained as they are, have had more luck than Meredith and her team. This week they set up an ambush and took out a biltong (dried meat) camp. Their efforts on the front line destroying snares and apprehending poachers as well as the community liaison work that goes on at Grumeti has reaped rewards. Animal numbers are on the rise, the elephant population has quadrupled in the last 11 years and giraffe and topi numbers have tripled.
Still Dr Craig Packer and his colleagues have estimated that tens of thousands of wildebeest are poached each year…and this is not a problem that will go away. You can read more about the issue in this Africa Geographic article.
Poaching goes on all around the world, I have even found wire snares set in my own garden her in France (probably for badger). It is a senseless, lazy but effective way to catch animals. There are many reasons why people poach, when I lived in South Africa the local community would poach our animals not because they were poor and couldn’t afford meat but because warthog and impala meat could fetch higher prices than chicken, goat or pig. Christmas was a particularly bad time for poaching as local chiefs put in their orders. Bushmeat was a delicacy and poaching made good money. In Central African Republic the systematic stripping of wildlife by the Sudanese cattle herders has been stimulated by draught and poverty in Sudan, they dry most of the meat to take back and sell in the Darfur region. Utilising the natural world is deeply rooted in many cultures around the world and always has been. Opportunity is what fuels the practice but it is the rapidly rising human population that is causing this age old practice to become unsustainable in our shrinking world.
I hope Meredith doesn’t have to witness too much more wildlife destruction but all the same it is good for a scientist to get firsthand experience of one of the biggest issues facing wildlife today and for us to recognise it.
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.
Meredith has been busy this past week attending the Citizen Science conference in St Paul, Minnesota. She reports back that it was a fantastically stimulating conference that confirms the high esteem that citizen science has grown within the science community.
The yearly conference sees a diverse group of people from researchers, educators and universities to the likes of NGO’s and museums get together to discuss the use and promotion of citizen science. Although we at Snapshot Serengeti have been aware of its great impact for some time citizen science is now emerging and is recognised as a powerful tool in the advancement of research by many.
Those attending the four day event collaborated by sharing their varied experience and ideas on a variety of topics. The collection and sharing of data and how to impact policy was discussed. There was focus on how to use citizen science as an engaging teaching tool, how to bring citizen science to a wider audience and how to involve citizens more in research. Those attending brought their joint experience and expertise together to discuss how citizen science impact on science could be measured and evaluated. If you want to find out more about the conference then visit this link.
We sometimes forget when working away at classifying our stunning images on Snapshot Serengeti that there is a lot of tech going on that enables us citizen scientists to be of use to the scientists. Meredith gave what’s known as a ‘project slam’ essentially a 5 minute presentation about our work on Snapshot Serengeti and how it has paved the way for helping other cameratrap citizen science projects. A quick look around Zooniverse will show just how many there are now.
The massive amount of data produced over several seasons through Snapshot Serengeti have allowed the development of a robust, tried and tested methodology that smaller projects would have taken years longer to develop. Just contemplate the work that went into developing interfaces, protocols, pipelines and algorithms for taking millions of classifications of untrained volunteers and turning them into a dataset which has been verified to be >97% accurate.
It is awesome to see that something we all find so truly engaging can translate into such serious stuff in the field of science. I think we, the citizen scientists, and the Snapshot team can be rightly proud of our work on this brand new branch of science
Today’s blog is by Sarah Huebner, a first year PhD student at University of Minnesota’s Lionlab studying under Dr Craig Packer. She writes about Save the Rhino day that was celebrated this week.
May 1st, 2017 is Save the Rhino Day, a day on which we must ponder what can be done to pull this beautiful animal back from the brink of total destruction. With fewer than 25,000 rhinos remaining in Africa, there is a strong possibility that they could go extinct within our lifetimes if poaching continues at its current pace. In addition to the problems of habitat fragmentation and human-wildlife conflict that all African animals face, rhinos have a target on their backs from poachers and criminal elements seeking to profit from selling their horns.
There are two species of rhinoceros in Africa–black rhinos and white rhinos. Both black and white rhinos have two horns on their heads, a larger one in front and a shorter one behind it. It is estimated that there are only 5,000 black rhinos remaining, down from 850,000 in the mid-20th century. The reason for this dramatic population collapse is poaching and sale of their horns through a criminal network from Africa to Asia. Though the rhino was added to the CITES list of animals banned from trade in 1977, their numbers have continued to crash since then. This is primarily due to the demand in China, Vietnam, and North Korea for use of the horns in jewelry, carvings, as a status symbol, and even in medicine. Some people believe that rhino horn can cure cancer. Scientific evidence clearly shows that rhino horn, made from the same material as our fingernails, is not at all useful in medicine.
Perhaps most distressing is the news that the ban on rhino horn trade in South Africa, home to the largest extant population of rhinos, has been lifted by their court system, clearing the way for the legal export of rhino horns. This does not mean that illegal trade will cease. Indeed, this move gives even more cover to the criminals trafficking rhinos. Though rhinos have the ability to regrow their horns, most are killed before having their horns sawed off, as we saw in the horrifying incident at a French zoo recently. If the rhinos are still alive when the horns are removed, they suffer terrible pain and are left to die, which many do because of blood loss. Impoverished poachers in Africa make very little for their efforts, while importers and sellers in Asia can make as much as US$30,000 for one kilogram of horn. Some estimate that the sale of both the front and back horns together is worth US$250,000. This makes rhino horn more valuable than gold or platinum. Little wonder that private reserves in South Africa wish to profit from the sale of these animals’ parts.
How then do we stop this? Organizations such as the Wildlife Justice Commission and Outraged South Africa Citizens Against Poaching are working to expose the criminal networks responsible for the poaching, smuggling, and selling of these horns in Asia. We can aid these and other conservation groups by helping to finance their initiatives designed to curb poaching. Perhaps the best way we can take action is to pressure our own governments to enact diplomatic sanctions on the countries that continue to look the other way while rhino horns are smuggled across their borders–primarily China, Vietnam, and North Korea. Diplomatic acts such as sanctions, travel bans, and blacklisting by other countries could convince these governments to enforce the national and global laws already on the books concerning rhino horn. On Save the Rhino Day 2017, contact your representatives and tell them that you want them to use diplomatic methods to pressure these countries to stop the import of rhino horn. Or the only way our children and grandchildren will see rhinoceros is in pictures, as we tell them about the magnificent creatures that once walked the earth.
Wildlife Justice Commission: https://wildlifejustice.org/
Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching: http://vyhub.com/css/css/
Investigative journalism by Al Jazeera: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMguWY99q6s
NYTimes–South African Court Ends Ban on Sale of Rhinoceros Horns: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/world/africa/south-africa-rhinoceros-horns-rhinos.html?_r=0
Here is another pair of antelope that are often muddled up on Snapshot Serengeti; topi and hartebeest. These two share a similar size and body shape and for those of you not familiar with them they can prove a bit tricky.
Topi and hartebeest belong to the same tribe, Alcelaphini, which also includes wildebeest. These antelope typically have an elongated face, long legs, short necks and stocky bodies. Although these antelope have reasonably large bodies their long legs mean they have retained the ability to run fast, a good adaptation for life on the open plains. It is believed that the long face developed in place of a long neck in order to reach the grasses they consume.
There are several species of both topi and hartebeest in Africa, two are found in the Serengeti. Coke’s hartebeest or kongoni (Alcelaphus cokii) are selective grazers with browse making up less than 4% of their diet. Serengeti topi (Damaliscus jimela) are 100% grazers
In both species males are territorial but topi also form leks from which to display to passing females. Males holding territory close to the lek are more desirable to females. Dominant females will actively prevent subordinate females from mating with these males.
So side by side we can see that the topi is much darker coloured than the hartebeest with distinct sandy socks up to its knees and conspicuous black patches on the thighs and shoulders. In contrast the hartebeest has pale legs and underbelly with a darker upper body. The paleness forms a patch on the top of the thigh.
From behind the contrast between leg colour and backside is very obvious with topi sporting dark legs with pale rump and back and hartebeest pale legs and rump with dark back.
Horn shape is also different. A topi’s horns sweep up and back whereas a heartebeest’s sweep out to the side before kinking back. They also sit on a prominent bony ridge on the top of the head.
Hopefully this will help you tackle all the images waiting on season 10.
The Zooniverse team are super busy at the moment but hopefully very soon season 10 will be loaded and we can all get cracking with what promises to be a fantastic season full of amazing images.
In the meantime I thought I would post a few notes on those tricky animal pairings that seem to have more than a few people stumped when trying to id them.
To kick it off we will look at Grant’s gazelle and Thomson’s gazelle. If you were treated to perfect photos every time I think you would get the hang of these two pretty quick but with the often blurry or distant images we get on snapshot they can be tricky.
Grant’s gazelle A Thomson’s gazelle A
A; First off there is the overall colouration. Thomson’s has a thick dark stripe across its side, Grant’s usually lacks this but be aware as some Grant’s have a dark stripe too. Not the best distinguishing feature as there can be quite a bit of colour variation.
Grant’s gazelle B Thomson’s gazelle B
B; A better distinction is the facial markings. Grant’s gazelle has a thick black stripe running along the side of the face from the nose passing through the eye to the base of the horns giving a masked look. Thomson’s has the same stripe but it ends at the eye, not passing through. The white band on top of the black stripe is more distinct on Grant’s.
Grant’s gazelle C Thomson’s gazelle C
C; If you get a back-side shot then Grant’s displays a much whiter overall appearance with the white area extending past the root of the tail up onto the back. In Thomson’s the white area stops at the root of the tail. Grant’s tail is white at the root and thin with whispy black end, Thomson’s is dark and fluffy looking. The black vertical bands in Grant’s are also more prominent.
Grant’s and Thomson’s Gazelle
Photo NH53, Flickr (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)
In a mixed group the smaller size of Thomson’s is evident, although with young animals it is not so obvious. Here you can easily see most of the features discussed above with the Grant’s gazelle comprising the 7 animals to the right back and the Thomson’s gazelle to the left forward. Note the Grant’s gazelle side on at the back, it shows a much darker side stripe than the others more a kin to Thomson’s. Males and females of both antelope have horns with the females usually shorter and thinner. In some females horns are absent. In general Grant’s are more graceful looking than the stocky Thomson’s.