You’ve got to check out this game: http://nightjar.exeter.ac.uk/story/nightjar_game
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!
Every once in a while, a camera gets knocked off a tree and ends up pointing up into the tree where there are many grassy balls hanging from the branches. We have one of these cameras in Season 5, and it is taking pictures like this one:
What are those odd grassy balls? Why, they’re the nests of weaver birds. My Birds of East Africa book lists a dozen species of weavers in the Serengeti, and most of them have a yellow and black pattern. Here’s what some of these guys look like close up.
Several years ago, I watched through a Lion House window as a weaver bird build its nest from scratch. The bird started with just a branch, one with something of a knot at the end where a twig may have split off in the past. The weaver grabbed a long blade of grass and wrapped it around that knobby joint and tucked the blade under itself, as you might do if you were tying your shoe. Then it got another blade of grass and wove that through the loop it had created with the first blade, tucking it securely back under and through the loop a second time. It continued to add blades for the next twenty minutes or so, such that the grass formed two clumps, one sticking out of either side of the knot.
(Aside: the soundtrack is completely coincidental; field assistant John was cooking something in the kitchen while listening to music.)
Straddling the two clumps, with one talon hanging on to each, the weaver then took a long blade from one clump and wove its end back up into the other clump. The result was a loop. The bird pulled additional grass from one clump to the other and strengthened the loop. Bit by bit.
I watched for over a half-hour, but I had work to do, too. So I left the little weaver to its task, and checked in again that evening before the sun set. There it was, a hefty wreath of grass hanging from the end of a tree branch.
I checked again a couple days later. The weaver had been working on filling in grass around the sides to form the ball shape.
Three days later the ball shape was becoming apparent (and I finally decided to take pictures outdoors instead of through the window, so that they’re better in focus).
Aha! I caught a decent shot of the builder. My bird appears to be a Vitelline Masked Weaver male. (Although, my book also says that the top of the head ought to be rather chestnut color and this guy has maybe only a little bit of chestnut and rather brown markings on the back instead of black. Maybe it’s a young male?) These guys generally are found solitary or in pairs, which explains why I saw just one of them building a nest in a tree all alone. And their nests are “distinctive onion-shaped nests with an entrance hole at the bottom.” Looking good…
Five days later Mr. Vitelline’s work was looking very much like a nest.
Five days later was also my last day in the Serengeti, so I didn’t see further developments of this nest. But I suspect it was completed and became a comfortable abode for its industrious builder.