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Meet the People #2

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Ingela showing camera-trap images to local Maasai

Photo: KopeLion

In my last blog I mentioned Ingela Jansson and the KopeLion project and promised to tell you more.

Ingela spent three years working for the Serengeti Lion project as a research assistant monitoring lions in the Serengeti National Park as well as the Ngorongoro Crater. Although working in the park was an amazing experience it was the work she did in the crater area that was to prove a more urgent calling. The very real conflict she saw between humans and lions persuaded her that if someone didn’t do something the Ngorongoro lions were headed towards extinction. And so KopeLion project was born in 2011.

The Ngorongoro conservation area was gazetted in 1959 and designated a multi use landscape. The pastoralist population were permitted to continue living there alongside the wildlife. Since this time the population has risen 10 fold and the once harmonious coexistence with lions has collapsed. Lions have disappeared from much of the area and the connection to the Serengeti lions is all but extinguished.

Enter KopeLion. The project aims to foster human – lion coexistence through community engagement, science and mentorship. One of the most successful outcomes so far is the recruitment of former lion hunters as lion protectors, we heard Roimen’s story last week.

But just how do you ‘engage with the community’ to try and change their minds about living with a dangerous predator. Well KopeLion do this in many ways. Firstly most of the employees are local which means they already have the community’s ear. To the Maasai their live stock are sacred so KopeLion spend a lot of time trying to reduce lion conflicts. They follow the model developed by Lion Guardians Ltd ( http://lionguardians.org )by helping local herders to build sturdy bomas,  searching for missing livestock, treating injured livestock and warning herders when lion are nearby. The lion guardians or Ilchokutis are assigned an area of between 60 and 200km2 where they monitor lions or signs of lions scientifically. They also try to prevent young warriors or Morani from carrying out lion hunts. Part of their role is as mentors to the younger generation.

The Maasai still hold strong traditional beliefs and have strong community ties, recognising and embracing this is one of the reasons for KopeLion’s success so far on its mission to help humans and lions live in peace. The strong local ties mean KopeLion have won trust amongst the local herders and in 2016 they were able to stop more than 20 lion hunts from going ahead and have seen the evidence that their efforts are working in the fact that two of the monitored lion prides now show complete survival.

Ingela and her team at KopeLion are doing such valuable work that I urge you to head over to their incredibly informative website to read more about it.

http://kopelion.org/

 

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The KopeLion team immobilizing a lion

 

Photo: KopeLion

All About Lions

Guess who just gave a fancy talk about Lion Project and Snapshot Serengeti!

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Major props to TCS Expeditions and the Four Seasons giving me a chance to talk about our project and spend the day in such a beautiful resort. I highly recommend the showers — feels good to be clean again!

Check out Mammal March Madness!

For some reason I missed this in 2013 and 2014. Maybe it was because I was finishing up my dissertation the first time and then recovering from a cross-country move the second time. But now I am totally excited about 2015’s

Mammal March Madness

What is Mammal March Madness? I’ll let organizer Katie Hinde explain:

In honor of the NCAA College Basketball March Madness Championship Tournament, Mammals Suck is featuring *simulated* combat competition among mammals. … Battle outcome is a function of the two species’ attributes within the battle environment. Attributes considered in calculating battle outcome include temperament, weaponry, armor, body mass, fight style, and other fun facts that are relevant to the outcome.

As a spectator to Mammal March Madness, you fill out a bracket and then follow along on Twitter or on the Mammals Suck … Milk! blog. The first game is on Monday, March 9, and direct elimination games continue until the championship on March 26.

I’ll note that the 2014 winner was Hyena who defeated Orca in the championship game. This year, we’ve got some Serengeti representation as well. But with Lion, Baboon, and Vervet monkey ranked just 8th, 12th, and 13th in the ‘Sexy Beasts’ division, they’re going to need all the cheering-on they can get.

So head on over, print out a bracket, and tell me who you think will make it all the way to the top this year.

(And just to be clear, I am not involved in Mammal March Madness in any way except as a participant. But it looks fun!)

Help us find animal selfies!

We’re partnering with National Geographic to put together a photo book of animal selfies from Snapshot Serengeti. We’ve got some selfies already from the first seven seasons, but because no one has looked through Season 8 yet, we don’t know what great selfies might be in there.

You can help! If you find an animal selfie, please tag it as #selfie in Talk. (Click the ‘Discuss’ button after you’ve classified the image and then enter #selfie below the image on the Talk page. You can get back to classifying using the button in the upper right.)

All proceeds from book sales will go to supporting Snapshot Serengeti. We’re planning for a fall 2016 publication date, so it will be a while. But we’re excited to get working on it.

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The legend of wolves and wapiti

The story of how reintroduced wolves transformed Yellowstone is now well known. According to the story, wolves scared elk away from the riversides, which allowed the willows and aspen to recover, allowing beavers to come back because they had home-building material big enough to use, and the beaver dams restored the health of the watershed.

I remember reading this story in college. I was sitting at a computer in UVA’s Alderman Library, digging up articles for a class presentation, when I stumbled on the now highly controversial article, “Wolves and the Ecology of Fear.” It blew my mind: right then and there, at the beginning of my last year of college, I knew I wanted to study how predators drove ecosystem dynamics.

It’s a beautiful story, and one that changed the trajectory of my career. And it’s one that’s been very hard to let go of, despite mounting evidence over the last decade that this story might not be more than a myth.

Dr. Arthur Middleton a post-doc at Yale and former graduate student at UWyoming, recently penned a fantastic op-ed about this in the NYtimes.

I had the good fortune of meeting Arthur at the Ecological Society of America talk last summer. I was a big fan of the work that he’d done, and that of his Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Matt Kaufman. But I didn’t envy either of them as they stepped into the fire of trying to take down what has become a beloved, monumental, epic tale. There’s no doubt that behaviorally-mediated trophic cascades do exist, and that predators can have profound influences on ecosystems, but the long-standing poster child for this simply isn’t real.

If you do one thing on your coffee break today, read his piece. While I could summarize the debate here, I couldn’t begin to do justice to Arthur’s eloquent argument.

Scratch that. If there’s one thing you do today, read Arthur’s piece. Not only will it make you think about wolves and ecology, but it will make you think about what nature we save, why we save it, and why that matters.

Find that nest!

You’ve got to check out this game:  http://nightjar.exeter.ac.uk/story/nightjar_game

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Scientists from the University of Exeter are trying to understand camouflage. Specifically, they want to understand how camouflage helps protect animals from being eaten for dinner, and they’re doing this by studying ground nesting birds in South Africa & Zambia.

Like Snapshot Serengeti, these guys use camera traps too, to figure out whose munching on birds and their nests. Unlike Snapshot Serengeti, however, they aren’t asking for help IDing the photos: instead, they’re asking for help figuring out how predators see, and how different types of camouflage work better or worse against predators with different types of vision.

Humans have trichromatic vision, meaning we have three different types of receptors (light sensitive cells in the eye) that can process color: red (longwave), green (mediumwave), and blue (shortwave). Some animals only have two receptor types and can only see one or two colors, whereas other animals have four, allowing them to see wavelengths such as infrared or ultraviolet that are invisible to people.  Thus, what camouflages eggs against one predator might not work so well against another predator.

What these researchers have done is create a game that mimics the vision of other predators. So you get to see the world through the eyes of either a genet cat (with dichromatic vision) or a vervet monkey (with trichromatic vision), and “hunt” for birds or their nests in a series of pictures. This helps scientists understand how perception changes among different animals, and how camouflage works against different perception types.

So go check it out! But don’t forget to come back and then help us classify Season 7! We’ll announce its debut on the blog soon!

 

Motivation

Happy New Year! 2014 is here and as Snapshotters around the world know it brings the eagerly awaited season 7 with it (coming soon). A season that may never have happened if it weren’t for the generosity of many who helped the Save Snapshot Serengeti campaign.

Recently I filled out a questionnaire for a local nature group who were hoping to launch a citizen science project. They asked the following question.

What would motivate you to take part in a citizen science project?
• To help scientists
• To enrich personal knowledge
• To gain awareness of preserving biodiversity
• To have contact with nature

As someone who has taken part in various citizen science projects both online and in the field this got me thinking. What does motivate us? I am sure there are as many answers out there as there are people taking part. For me all of the above options play their part in the motivation but it’s more than that. There is of course just pure personal enjoyment. Let’s face it: it’s fun, being involved, interacting on the forums with like minded people, getting a glimpse of what the scientists are up to. It connects us to science. I think without this aspect citizen science wouldn’t be the success that it is.

The other motivation for me is the sense of being able to do something that helps. The news is full of doom and gloom these days; climate change, vanishing biodiversity, habitat loss. This can leave us feeling depressed and the scale of the issues can make us feel helpless to do anything. Citizen science offers us the opportunity to feel positive and provides us with a way to really help and make a difference.

Modern technology has not only lead to huge advances in data capture capabilities for scientists but to organisations such as Zooniverse to involve the worldwide public in analysing that data. The ability to join in from the comfort of your own home is really a revolution in science.There are also loads of projects that get you out and about and tap into the rich source of amateur naturalists. Bird counts, butterfly counts, phenology projects to mention just a few.

What is it that motivates you? We would really like to hear your thoughts, why do you participate in Snapshot Serengeti? Do you work on other Zooniverse projects? What about field projects?

Graduate School

Maybe from time to time you’ve wondered: Who are these scientists running Snapshot Serengeti? How did they get where they are? (And why am I sitting here instead of traipsing across the Serengeti myself?)

Ali and I are both graduate students at the University of Minnesota. What that means is that a while ago (seven years for me!) we filled out an application and wrote some essays for admission to the University of Minnesota’s graduate school — just like you would do for college admissions. The difference is that for graduate school, you also need to identify an advisor — a faculty member who will become both your mentor and your judge — and an area of research that you want to pursue. And while the admissions materials matter, it’s very important that your future advisor want to take you on as a student and that your area of research interest meshes well with hers or his.

In the U.S., you can apply for a Masters program or a Ph.D. program. In some places you can get a Masters on the way to a Ph.D., but that’s not the case at Minnesota. So I applied for the Ph.D., got admitted and started as a Ph.D. student in the fall of 2007. I’m pretty much only going to talk about Ph.D.s from here on out. And I should point out that graduate school systems vary from country to country. I’m just going to talk about how it works in the U.S. because I’m not terribly familiar with what happens in other countries.

For the first 2-3 years in our program, students spend much of their time taking classes. These are mostly higher level classes that assume you already took college-level classes in basic biology, math, etc. I came in with an college degree in computer science, and so a bunch of the classes I took were actually more fundamental ecology and evolution classes so I could get caught up. But many classes are reserved for just graduate students or for grad students plus motivated seniors.

At the same time as taking these classes, students are expected to come up with a research plan to pursue. The first couple years are filled with a lot of anxiety about what exactly to do, and there are plenty of missteps. My first attempt at a research project involved tracking the movement of wildebeest in the Serengeti using satellites and airplane surveys. (Yes, you can see individual wildebeest in Google Earth if you hunt around!) But it turned out not to be a logically or financially feasible project, so I discarded it — after a lot of time and energy investment.

Around the end of the second year and beginning of the third year, grad students in the U.S. take what are called “preliminary” or “comprehensive” exams. These vary from school to school and from department to department. But they usually consist of both a written and oral component. In some places the goal of these exams to to assess whether you know enough about the broad discipline to be allowed to proceed. In other places, the goal is to judge whether or not you’ve put together a reasonable research plan. The program Ali and I are in leans more toward the latter. It requires a written proposal about what you plan to do for research. This proposal is reviewed by several faculty who decide whether it passes or not.

If you pass your written component, you then give a public talk on your proposed research followed by a grueling two to three hour interview with your committee. In our program, students choose their committee members, following a few sets of rules about who can be on it. My committee had five people, including my two advisors. They took turns asking me questions about my proposed research, how I would collect data, analyze it, how I would deal with adversity. The committee then met without me to decide whether I passed or not. (spoiler: I passed)

So, assuming a student passes the preliminary exams, she or he is then considered a “Ph.D. Candidate,” which basically means that all requirements except the actual dissertation itself have been fulfilled. If you’ve ever heard the term “A.B.D.” or “All But Dissertation,” that is what this means. The student got through the first hurdles, but never got a dissertation done (or accepted).

Now it’s time for the research. With luck, persistence, motivation, and lack of confounding factors, a student can do the research and write the dissertation in about three years. Doing research at first is slow because, like learning anything new, you make mistakes. I spent a lot of time gathering data that I’m not going to end up using. Now that I’ve been doing research for a few years, I can better estimate which data is worth collecting and which is not. And so I’m more efficient. While doing research, the student is also reading other people’s related research, and often picking up a side-project or two.

Eventually, the student, together with the advisor(s) and committee members, decides that she or he has done enough research to prove that she or he is a capable professional scientist. All the research gets written up into a massive tome called the dissertation. These days, it’s not uncommon for graduate students in the sciences to write up their dissertation chapters as formal papers that then get published in scientific journals. Sometimes one or more chapters is already published by the time the dissertation is submitted.

When the writing of the dissertation is finished, it gets sent to the committee to read. The student then gives a formal, public talk on the results of the dissertation research, followed by another two to three hour interview with the committee. This time it’s called the “Dissertation Defense,” and the committee asks questions about the research results (and possibly asks the student to fight a snake). The committee then meets without the student and comes up with a decision of whether the student passes or not. There is also often a conditional part of this decision that requires some portion of the dissertation to be revised or added to. So, a decision of “pass, conditional on the following revisions:” is pretty common.

I should mention that while being a grad student has been mostly quite fun, you may not want to drop your day job and run off to academia just yet. There’s the issue of funding. On the plus side, you can acquire funding in the sciences so that you don’t have to take on debt to do your degree (which is not so true in the humanities). Ali and I have both applied for and received fellowships that have allowed us to do most of our graduate program without having to work. But many — maybe most — grad students in the sciences work essentially part-time jobs (20 hours/week) as teaching assistants for faculty. This can really slow down research progress, as well as making some types of research impossible (for example, those that require lengthy trips to the Serengeti). Whether working or on fellowship, students typically gross no more than $30,000 annually, and often less than $25,000, which can be quite reasonable (single person living in a low-cost-of-living area) or prohibitive (person supporting a family living in a high-cost-of-living area). Benefits are pretty much non-existent, with the exception of health coverage, which can range from great (thanks, Minnesota!) to really bad to non-existent.

I mention all this this because I am about to defend my dissertation! In a little less than two weeks I will give a talk, sit down with my committee, and try to convince them I’m a decent scientist. Wish me luck.

Craig at Bryant Lake Bowl TONIGHT

If you’re in the Twin Cities area, Craig will be giving a Café Scientifique talk (“The Short and Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion”) at the Bryant Lake Bowl at 7pm tonight.

If you’ve never been to one, the Café Scientifique talks are loads of fun. They’re informal presentations by scientists in a bar setting. Eat, drink, laugh, science. Can’t get much better than that.

CafeSci

Our lions in National Geographic Magazine

The August edition of National Geographic Magazine has a cover story on the Serengeti lions that Craig has been studying for decades. And because Ali set out the camera trap grid in the same place as Craig’s lion study area, you see the same lions (plus more) on Snapshot Serengeti as those featured in the article. In fact, photographer Michael Nichols was out in the Serengeti during Season 5, so his pictures are contemporaneous with the ones up on Snapshot Serengeti right now.

So if you have a moment, go check out “The Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion,” which is entertaining and gives a nice history of the foundational research on which the Snapshot Serengeti science rests. And take a gander at the editor’s note, which accompanies this picture.

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