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The Other Great Migration

White Stork

 

I am sitting at home in France in a sweltering 40oc listening to golden orioles calling from the tall riverine trees. I could definitely be in Africa, though if I was I would probably be somewhat reluctant to jump in the river to cool off, something I am about to do, what with all the hippo and crocs that the Serengeti is so famous for.

It has got me thinking though about all our shared birds between Africa and Europe. Hearing the orioles today has made me realise that they will be setting off very soon, in the next couple of weeks probably, for their return trip to their wintering grounds in Africa.

Now the Serengeti is justly known for its rather famous herbivore migration but to me it is utterly fascinating that birds, particularly the tiny ones are also taking part in seasonal movements that cover 1000’s of kilometres.

It’s a dangerous journey, they risk predation, starvation and severe weather and if that’s not enough they have to pass over several places where humans think blasting as many of them out of the sky as possible is sport. For the birds migrating from Europe to Africa they have to fly over open sea and a lot have to negotiate the Sahara Desert, an area around the size of the United States. It is estimated that 500 million birds have to cross this unforgiving wilderness and some do it in a long nonstop flight. Just imagine how exhausted they are the when they reach the safety of the green belts that fringe it. My husband used to work in the Sahara and can attest to finding dozens of swallows just lying panting on the ground, being able to pick them up and give them water before launching them onwards.

So why do they do it, well much the same reason as wildebeest and zebra do, resources. Birds have the very special ability to travel very efficiently, it has been said that a small bird can fly the same distance in hours that an elephant would cover in three days. With this ability birds are able to switch geographical areas in order to take advantage of seasonal food supplies and so they enjoy the best of both worlds in terms of food abundance despite the risk involved with moving the great distance between the two. Risk versus reward.

Unlike the Serengeti herbivore migration birds have many different strategies when it comes to undertaking their colossal movements often depending on the species unique design. Many small passerines will migrate in small groups, travelling at night and will try for the shortest, most direct route. A kind of fast and furious approach that relies on having fed up well and being able to feed quickly at the few places they do stop to refuel. Other birds, particularly waders will take a more leisurely approach flying down waterways and coasts, stopping for days or weeks at a time to feed up before moving on. Many raptors and storks cross the Mediterranean Sea over Gibraltar and Tarifa in Spain. It is roughly a 14 kilometre crossing. It is an amazing spectacle to see. Thousands of birds can be seen soaring around in the late morning over land waiting for the thermals to build up which they will use to ride across the sea to Africa. It’s kind of like surfing only on hot air.

Once they get to Africa of course they have a huge choice of where to go and they spread out accordingly, many making it all the way to South Africa. In fact we still don’t know where a lot of them go, something that is vital to understanding the threats facing them today.

So who are the feathered migrants that we may see in the Serengeti? Well across Tanzania there are thought to be around 160 species of Palaearctic/African migrants. The Palaearctic is a large region covering Europe, Russia, North Africa, Arabia and parts of Asia so that’s a lot of movement.

Some of Europe’s smallest birds can be found in the Serengeti amongst them willow warblers, wood warblers and blackcaps. Spotted flycatchers and several shrikes can be easily seen. The common cuckoo is trickier as it is, like many migrants, silent outside of its breeding ground. European bee-eaters and rollers meet up with their African cousins as do barn swallows and common house martins.

Even raptors make it to the famous park; lesser spotted, steppe and imperial eagles all breed in the Palaearctic. Eurasian marsh harrier, black kite and common buzzard all enjoy the warm African conditions before heading back north to breed.

For Snapshot Serengeti followers the most commonly seen migrants on our camera-traps are probably storks, white storks and black storks all take the long journey north for breeding. More surprisingly given it is not noted for its water even European ducks have been spotted in the Serengeti, wigeon, Eurasian teal and garganey amongst them.

This is not an exhaustive list but gives you an idea of the level in which the two continents are connected through their shared avian fauna and reminds us of what a truly global planet we live on.

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Lions

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This is a great sequence from one of our 225 camera-traps that are tirelessly snapping away in the heart of the Serengeti National Park. One of the largest and longest running camera-trap projects, Snapshot Serengeti has been running for over 8 years with out a break.

The millions of images generated by so many cameras are processed by the amazing online community of citizen scientists without whom the team of scientists would probably still be working their way through season 2 rather than ploughing their way through season 10 (that’s were we are at currently, November 2015 to September 2016).

Those of you who have helped out on Snapshot Serengeti will realise that there is a great variety of images that come up, they are randomly assigned to each classifier and currently have to have at least 10 matched classifications before being retired. A great many are of grass or the tail end of animals as they pass by. Its the frustration of camera-trapping, when you look at the results you just wish you could nudge the camera to the left a bit to get a better image but of course its way to late for that once you have the image safely in hand.

But every once in a while we get a stunning image worthy of a professional photographer or one that shows really interesting behaviour and those are the images that get people hooked on returning day after day to help out on Snapshot Serengeti. A little fix of wildlife in its environment enjoyed from your home.

This sequence of a lion pride is great. In all likely hood the four individuals we can see here are not the only members, others could be out of frame. It looks as though the female has a pink tone to her muzzle, now it could be a trick of the light but its also possible that the pride have recently fed. The full looking belly and the relaxed nature of the other members would lend weight to this possibility but we will never know for sure (unless more images from that camera-trap reveal more proof!)

It is most definitely one of those moments when you wish you could pan the camera around to see what else is going on, did we almost get a kill on camera? are there a bunch of cubs laying under a bush to the right? are there a pair of resplendent pride males slumbering to the left?

If you do discover more from this series do let us know but for the time being we shall have to let our imagination ramble.

The African Buffalo, Success in a Crowd

African Buffalo Herd

 

 

Lately we seem to have had some great buffalo images. These big imposing beasts aren’t exactly pretty but they have an appeal of their own with their imposing bulk.

There are 4 recognised subspecies of the African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), three savannah buffalo and one forest buffalo. Here in the Serengeti we find Cape buffalo (S c caffer) the biggest of the three savannah species also known as southern savanna buffalo. It weighs in at a whopping 500- 900 kg for males or 350-620kg for females. The two other savannah species are West African savanna buffalo (S. c. brachyceros) and Central African savanna buffalo (S. c. aequinoctialis) both slightly smaller than their Cape buffalo cousins.

The forest buffalo (S. c. nanus) appears quite different being redder in colour and quite a bit smaller weighing around 265-320kg but it is thought that this is in fact the ancestral African buffalo from which the others evolved. According to the IUCN Red-List although the three savannah species appear similar they are at least as different from one another as they are from the more distinct forest buffalo. Defining subspecies is always tricky and apparently there is hybridisation where these different subspecies meet, including between savannah and forest subspecies. I witnessed this when working in the Central African Republic where you could see smaller red ‘forest’ type buffalo intermingled with bigger looking dark ‘savannah’ type.

So what makes African buffalo so special? You would imagine that such a large animal would not seek safety in numbers but this animal is highly gregarious. Herds can reach thousands strong but these tend to be temporary and the usual number is dozens to hundreds formed of clans of related females and their offspring and an assortment of males. The rest of the males form small bachelor herds of 5-10 animals or live alone.

Living in these large herds gives buffalo a certain security and they are highly protective. They are known to chase predators as a herd in order to ‘rescue’ a targeted individual. They don’t hesitate to run at lions if they are threatened. This is to be expected when there are young calves about but buffalo herds are known to extend this behaviour towards injured, sick and even blind herd members. It is so effective that it is actually males not living in large groups, particularly the loners that are most often preyed upon by their arch enemy, the lion. When buffalos are on the move dominant females lead the way with mothers and calves in the centre followed by any infirm individuals and older cows with males forming a protective ring around the entire herd.

Formidable indeed but of course the very thing that allows them to be so aggressive, their size, is also the thing that attracts lion the only true threat other than man to an adult African buffalo.

As a species the African buffalo is listed as ‘least concern’ on the IUNC Red-List due to its widespread distribution. That doesn’t mean that there are not conservation issues. Buffalo are often targeted by poachers for the obvious reason that they provide a rich reward in meat, the usual land reduction is a factor and in areas outside game reserves they are often killed as they compete with domestic cattle for food.

Historically buffalo numbers plummeted in the 1890’s due to the rinderpest epidemic that saw the disease spread from domestic cattle to wild ungulates. The disease continues to have small outbreaks. More recently bovine tuberculoses, again spread from domestic cattle to buffalos, in the Kruger National Park has also caused mortality as well as triggering a cascade of health issues in other animals, in particular, lions who eat infected buffalo. A whole industry has grown up with the sole purpose of breeding TB free African buffalo in South Africa. On the whole though African buffalo are well represented with strong populations in protected areas and as long as these remain their status looks to be stable.

The male and female have large horns that are fused at the base forming a boss across their heads, in the male though this becomes thickened and sometimes massive and fighting males will crash bosses together if things become serious and posturing doesn’t work. The impact is so intense that they risk killing themselves or their rivals.

 

Big male Cape buffalo

 

 

Next time you find a buffalo image, see if you can work out if it is male or female and take sometime to reflect on these formidable beasts.

Best of Friends

wildebeest and zebra

 

Symbiotic relationships are common in the Serengeti. They fall into two main types, mutualism, whereby both partners benefit from one another and commensalism, whereby one partner benefits from the actions of the other but the other partner is largely unaffected or unharmed. I wrote recently of oxpeckers and large herbivores, large herbivores provide food in the form of ticks for the oxpeckers and oxpeckers provide a cleaning service for the large herbivores, a good example of mutualism. Birds such as cattle egrets that follow buffalo around to catch the invertebrates the buffalo disturb as they graze is an example of commensalism. Of course it is not just animals that have symbiotic relationships; my blog last week on termites and mushrooms was another example of mutualism.

So what about zebras and wildebeests? We see them all the time on Snapshot Serengeti in mixed herds, grazing peaceably with one another. Is this just coincidence or is this a form of symbiosis?

It is actually hard to say and of course that is why labelling things, especially behaviour is often tricky.

Zebra and wildebeest are both grazers meaning they mostly eat grasses but that doesn’t mean they share the same diet. They preferentially eat different parts of the plants that they consume. Zebras are quite content chewing longer tougher grasses where as wildebeest prefer shorter, more tender shoots. This partition of resources means they can quite happily graze side by side with out exerting pressure on each other.

Another good reason to team up is the extra safety that numbers provide. Not only do more ears and eyes provide better early warning systems but the odds of the individual being targeted by a predator are reduced when there are greater numbers to choose from. Apparently zebra have better eyesight but wildebeest have better hearing so the two complement each other.

There could be another reason. Our very own Meredith Palmer just published a paper about interspecies reaction to each other’s alarm calls, you can read it here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0003347217304207

She found that zebra, wildebeest and impala recognise each other’s alarm calls but that they did not always respond in the same manner. When zebra sounded the alarm all three herbivores reacted strongly but when impala gave the alarm zebra where likely to ignore it, or assess the relative danger themselves. It seems that this varied response is down to predator size. Impala are prey to a wide range of smaller predators that would not be able to handle a mammal the size of a zebra, so when impala give the call it doesn’t always signal danger for the zebra. However when a zebra, the largest of the three herbivores sounds the alarm, whatever it has seen will probably be able to take down the wildebeest or the impala too so it’s prudent that all three scarper.

It is an interesting reaction and maybe wildebeest hang out with zebra because they are more trustworthy alarmists. I am not sure that the companionship of zebra and wildebeest can be classed as symbiotic I think it is more of an interaction due to a shared habitat but it seems that on some level they can benefit each other.

Unusual Critters

There is a small mammal that is found in the Serengeti which I am not sure we have ever captured on camera-trap or if we have most of you won’t have got the chance to classify them as the capture rate will be very low.

It is not because they are rare or even that elusive, visit the Serengeti or any number of suitable reserves across Africa and you will bump into these odd little creatures. It is just that they are very restricted by their habitat which is rocky outcrops.

The mammal I am talking about is a relative of the elephant, yes that’s right, the largest land mammal is cousin to this rabbit sized African curiosity, the hyrax otherwise known as rock rabbits or dassies. It seems that the two species split some 70 odd million years ago so plenty of time to both specialise in their own way. However one odd trait the hyrax retained was a long gestation period (7 months) more similar to larger mammals. Compare this to scrub hares that have a gestation period of around 42 days. New born hyraxes are extremely well developed and commence eating grass within a few days of birth. Unusually for a small mammal life expectancy is long, up to 12 years.

 

Rock Hyrax  Procavia Capensis

Rock Hyrax

 

Photo Credit: Max Pixel; creative commons zero- cco

 

There are two species of hyrax we could encounter in the Serengeti, the rock hyrax (Procavia sp) and the bush hyrax (Heterohyrax brucei). In fact they can even be seen side by side sunning themselves on rocks. Although they both make their homes in rocky outcrops the two have decidedly different life styles. The rock hyrax eats predominantly grasses and rarely strays far from rocky out crops, conversely the bush hyrax eats mainly leaves, twigs and bark which it climbs trees to eat. The two species however live in colonies in rocks and in the Serengeti at least these colonies can be a mix of both species. The rocky retreats act not only as safety from the many predators that eat hyrax but also offer a way to thermo-regulate.

It’s a wonder that these closely related species don’t hybridise but it seems they have extremely different genital structures as well as the differing dental work needed to cope with the different diets. All species have long sharp upper incisors that are often used in dominance scuffles, hyrax can be very bad tempered and those incisors can inflict serious damage.

 

Bush Hyrax showing incisors

 

Photo Credit: Peter Steward, Flickr CC-BY-NC2.0

 

Living in a relatively small area and in colonies has lead to some interesting behaviour amongst hyrax. They use latrines which are thought to be centuries old. In fact you can often spot the white stains on the rocks of an active colony.

All in all a fascinating little creature, if you are ever faced with a snapshot image with rocks in, take a good look to see if you can’t see a hyrax sitting there.

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.

 

Wonderful Wildebeests

Wildebeest

 

I thought I would write about wildebeest this week, it seems we take them for granted a bit. Certainly on Snapshot Serengeti they generate about the most images and it has been commented in the past “No, not another wildebeest”. The Serengeti is after all world famous for its wildebeest.

But what do you know about them, other than the roam around in large herds and get eaten by lions, leopards, hyenas and crocs?

Well ecologically they have evolved in a fascinating way. They are heavily dependent on water, never straying more than 20km or so from it. However, their square looking lips are designed for nibbling at short grass swards that are found in drier, fire maintained grasslands like that of the Serengeti and they are unsuited to wetter areas of equatorial Africa where grasses become tall and rank. They are bulk grazers that operate in large herds. Wildebeest are not especially fast runners having a body shape that favours their digestive tract, instead they rely on the size of the herd for protection. Unlike their close cousins, the hartebeest who are designed to outpace predators, wildebeest have proportionately shorter legs and males develop sturdy thick necks.

We have all seen footage of the migration with nervous looking wildebeest stampeding along, hell bent on reaching their destination. What you may not know is that this mass getting together stimulates the rutting state in both sexes. In amongst the moving herds males try desperately to mark out and keep a small territory from which he cavorts around noisily evicting other males and trying to impress a few females to mate with. The problem is he has to keep moving with the herd so these territories are very temperal and really only exist in his mind and he has to move on every day or so in order to keep up with the ladies. There are always a few males left in the wake of the procession that get caught up with fighting each other and trying to hold territories without realising the females have all gone. Once the migration has reached its destination everything calms down a bit and things get back to normal, breaking up into smaller groups until it’s time to do it all again.

Wildebeest no longer exist in their historic numbers. They are particularly affected by land use changes, susceptible to domestic live stock diseases and are targeted by poachers. Their dependence on water, quality short grasslands and large herd size means they don’t fare well on marginal land. However it’s not all bad news. Wildebeest are well represented in national parks across their range in Africa.

 

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Well it is that time of year again when the winners of the prestigious wildlife photographer of the year awards are announced.

Having a browse through this year’s winners I notice with a touch of sadness but a good dose of hope just how many of the photos touch on the demise of wildlife and have a conservation message. Brent Stirton’s moving image of a poached black rhino although tragic is a strong weapon in itself in the fight to change the hearts and minds of those people that covet rhino horn.

One of my favourite images is in the bird behaviour category. The much maligned marabou stork is the subject and the shot was taken in the one spot on this planet that Snapshot Serengeti fans know so well, yes the Serengeti.

But the story doesn’t end there. The photographer who was awarded finalist in the bird behaviour category is well known to us. Daniel Rosengren worked for the Serengeti Lion project for 5 years in the field with the most enviable job going. He spent every day following the study lions getting to know them intimately and generally building up the rich source of study data that this 30 year+ project has gained.

Of course when Dr Ali Swanson came up with her wonderful idea of seeding the area with 200 odd camera traps and the Snapshot Serengeti project was born it was Daniel who looked after our precious cameras for several years. So we have a lot to thank him for.

Daniel moved on from the project in 2015 to pursue a career as a professional wildlife photographer and we congratulate him on his achievement this year in the wildlife photographer of the year award. Well done!

If you want to learn more about the story behind his image or just want to see some stunning wildlife images visit his website here http://danielrosengren.se/wpy-awardee/

And to see all the other winners from this year’s wpy 2017 visit

http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit/wpy.html

 

Celebrating Owls

Sotted eagle-owl

Spotted eagle-owl

 

Although mammals are the target for the Snapshot Serengeti camera-trap project we do on occasion capture other things, humans, vehicles, reptiles and birds. The most common of the birds is probably the larger ground patrolling species like kori bustard, secretary bird, guinea-fowl or the birds that are attracted to mammals like oxpeckers, egrets. It is actually surprising just how many species we have picked up over the years.

One of my favourites though has to be the owls. Always such fascinating creatures they are often loved but often feared too. Their nocturnal, silent flight lends to the mystery but anyone who has been around owls much will know that they can be noisy birds when it comes to calls.

So who might we encounter in the snapshot Serengeti camera-trap images. Well there are 9 species that call the Serengeti home:

  1. Barn owl – Tyto alba
  2. African marsh owl – Asio capensis
  3. Spotted eagle owl – Bubo africanus
  4. Verreaux’s eagle owl –Bubo lacteus
  5. African wood owl – Strix woodfordii
  6. Pear-spotted owlet – Glaucidium perlatum
  7. Southern white-faced scops owl – Ptilopsis granti
  8. African barred owlet – Glaucidium capensis
  9. African scops owl – Otus senegalensis

The barn owl found on every continent except Antarctica is probably familiar to us all. The spotted eagle owl, a medium sized owl is just that, heavily spotted and barred overall greyish. The similar sized wood owl sticks to more densely wooded areas and is a darker chocolate brown. This is a rare bird for the snapshot habitat.

The largest owl we will encounter is the Verreaux’s eagle owl, pale grey the most obvious distinguishing feature is bizarrely its eye lids, they are bright pink. Unmistakeable if you get a good view.

As for the small owls two are actually reasonably active during the day, pearl-spotted and barred owlets. Quite hard to tell apart the pearl-spotted has white spotting on its back where as the barred has, you guessed it, a barred back. However if you are ever lucky enough to hear a pearl-spot in the wild they are unmistakable. It has a slow single note, rising pitch call that builds up to deflating drawn out descending notes. Hard to describe but its other name is the orgasm bird!

We would be lucky to pick up a scops owl, the smallest of all these owls. It remains hidden in trees all day and hunts insects at night.

African scops owl

The African marsh owl is unusual in that it roosts on the ground, tunnelling into long grass. Superficially it resembles a barn owl but the pale facial disc is rounder than the heart shape of a barn owl. They mostly eat rodents.

African marsh owl in flight

The white-faced scops owl has a very striking white face framed by black bands. The rest of its body is pale grey. Size wise it is slightly bigger than the two owlets.

If you want to see more snapshot images of birds follow this link where one of our moderaters has put together some great stuff:

https://talk.snapshotserengeti.org/#/boards/BSG0000008/discussions/DSG0000ek5

 

Dynamic Landscape of Fear

Lions with zebra kill

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The Snapshot team have written another paper using the Snapshot data we all help to classify. The paper A ‘dynamic’ landscape of fear: prey responses to spatiotemporal variations in predation risk across the lunar cycle can be found at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ele.12832/full for those of you interested in reading the original.

Lead by Meredith Palmer the paper explores how four ungulate species, buffalo, gazelle, zebra and wildebeest respond to predation risk during differing stages of the lunar cycle. These four make up the bulk of the African lion’s diet in the Serengeti along with warthog. Of course warthog are strictly diurnal so are not affected by the lunar cycle as they are tucked up nice and snug in a burrow.

For the other four night time can be a stressful time. None of these animals sleep all night, they snatch rest here and there, keep grazing and most importantly of all keep a watchful eye or ear out for possible attack.

It has long been thought that prey species territory is shaped by fear and that animals have safe areas (where they rest, give birth, etc) and risky areas where they instinctively know predators may be lurking. These areas trigger a risk versus reward response as they often contain better forage/water etc.

What Meredith and the team argue is that this landscape of fear is very much dynamic changing not only with seasons and night and day but on a very much finer scale as influenced by light availability through the moon.

Lions find it so much easier to hunt during nights where the moon gives of least light. It gives them a great advantage to stalking close to their prey using the dark as a kind of camouflage. The prey species, on the other hand, are at a distinct disadvantage, they can’t see the stalker and even if they sense its presence they are reluctant to flee as this presents a great risk in itself if they can’t see.

Meredith and her colleagues took the data from Snapshot Serengeti to quantify nocturnal behaviour of the key species using the presence or absence of relaxed behaviour (defined when we classify a species as resting or eating.) They then overlapped this with data collected through Serengeti Lion Project on lion density and hunting success. This data enabled them to work out what areas where high or low risk to the prey species. Using a clever statistical program, R, the data was analysed to see if lunar cycle had any bearing on animal behaviour, in particular, predator avoidance.

They found that moonlight significantly affected the behaviour of all four species but in a variety of ways. As we mentioned before there is often a good reason to venture into the high risk areas and the trade off in increased risk of predation is a really good feed. Buffalo for instance don’t change their use of space so much but were found to form more herds on dark nights. It seems safety in numbers works well for buffalo. Zebra react similarly in their herding activity but are much more erratic when it comes to space use, moving around a lot more randomly keeping potential predators on their toes.

Each species showed an aversion to using high risk areas at night but, particularly wildebeest and zebra, were found to increase their use of these areas when the moons luminosity was higher and safety increased. It was noted that high risk areas where avoided more frequently in the wet season than the dry. The thought being that there is increased hours of moonlight during the dry season that the animals take advantage of. Perhaps too the drive to find enough good food is a factor.

This paper serves to remind us that although what we do at Snapshot Serengeti is fun it is more than just a way for us classifiers to pass the time. It really has a very significant role in science and that role is ever increasing.