Hello! I haven’t written in a while. After I defended my dissertation in December, I’ve been busy getting ready to move to the Boston area. I have now started a research position (technically called a “postdoctoral fellowship”) at Harvard University.
In this new job, I am putting together a new citizen science project. This project will help scientists better understand and forecast the effects of climate change on North American trees and plants. We have cameras up throughout the U.S. and Canada taking automatic pictures of forests, grasslands, shrublands, desserts, and even tundra. There are already several years of images recorded, so it’s a great data set to play with.
In order to understand the seasonality of trees and plants, we talk about “phenology,” which is the timing of when trees and plants go through their various life stages. You can think about a maple tree, for example, which puts out leaf buds in the spring, grows those leaves into a full green canopy, then those leaves start to change color, and eventually they all fall off the tree in the autumn. These phenology events define all sorts of processes that are important to people – ranging from how much carbon trees and plants take out of the air to the timing of seasonal pollen release (which you might care about if you have allergies).
Of course, computer algorithms can only do so much, which is where citizen science comes in. The human eye is great at looking at fine details in images and figuring out what’s going on in strange images. For example, one of my colleagues was looking at a measure of greenness in grassland images from Hawaii. This measure was calculated automatically from the images. But something seemed strange. When he went and looked at the individual images themselves, he discovered that there was a common plant that flowered yellow all at once, which changed the greenness in a surprising way.
I’m excited about this new job, but I’m still involved with Snapshot Serengeti. These past couple months, Ali and I have been training Meredith on all the behind-the-scenes image and data processing that goes on both before you see the images and after you’ve classified them. This has slowed down the release of Season 7 (sorry), but ensuring continuity means fewer problems down the line. (By the way, Meredith is a fast learner – it’s just that there’s a lot to learn!) And I’ll still be blogging here periodically.
I’ve had a couple people ask about my dissertation. It’s now published and available online. Note, though, that it doesn’t contain any Snapshot Serengeti content. I was already rather far along in writing it when Snapshot Serengeti launched, so I didn’t have time to include it. We’re working on the first Snapshot Serengeti papers now, though, and we will be sure to let you know when they’re ready to read.
If you’ve been following Margaret’s blogs, you’ve known this moment was coming. So stop what you’re doing, put down your pens and pencils, and open up your internet browsers, folks, because Season 5 is here!
It’s been an admittedly long wait. Season 5 represents photos from June – December 2012. During those six months I was back here in Minnesota, working with Margaret and the amazing team at Zooniverse to launch Snapshot Serengeti; meanwhile, in Serengeti, Stanslaus Mwampeta was working hard to keep the camera trap survey going. I mailed the Season 5 photos back as soon as possible after returning to Serengeti – but the vagaries of cross-continental postal service were against us, and it took nearly 5 months to get these images from Serengeti to Minnesota, where they could be prepped for the Snapshot interface.
So now that you’ve finally kicked the habit, get ready to dive back in. As with Season 4, the photos in Season 5 have never been seen before. Your eyes are the first. And you might see some really exciting things.
For starters, you won’t see as many wildebeest. By now, they’ve moved back to the north – northern Serengeti as well as Kenya’s Masaai Mara – where more frequent rains keep the grass long and lush year-round. Here, June marks the onslaught of the dry season. From June through October, if not later, everything is covered in a relentless layer of dust. After three months without a drop of rain, we start to wonder if the water in our six 3,000 liter tanks will last us another two months. We ration laundry to one dusty load a week, and showers to every few field days. We’ve always made it through so far, but sometimes barely…and often rather smelly.
You might see Stan
And occasionally Daniel
Checking the camera traps.
But most excitingly, you might see African wild dogs.
Also known as the Cape hunting dog or painted hunting dog, these canines disappeared from Serengeti in the early 1990’s. While various factors may have contributed to their decline, wild dog populations have lurked just outside the Serengeti, in multi-use protected areas (e.g. with people, cows, and few lions) for at least 10 years. Many researchers suspect that wild dogs have failed to recolonize their previous home-ranges inside the park because lion populations have nearly tripled – and as you saw in “Big, Mean, & Nasty”, lions do not make living easy for African wild dogs.
Nonetheless, the Tanzanian government has initiated a wild dog relocation program that hopes to bring wild dogs back to Serengeti, where they thrived several decades ago. In August 2012, and again in December, the Serengeti National Park authorities released a total of 29 wild dogs in the western corridor of the park. While the release area is well outside of the camera survey area, rumor has it that the dogs booked it across the park, through the camera survey, on their journey to the hills of Loliondo. Only a handful of people have seen these newly released dogs in person, but it’s possible they’ve been caught on camera. So keep your eyes peeled! And if you see something that might be a wild dog, please tag it with #wild-dog!! Happy hunting!
Faulty Cameras (video-style)
Ali has written about the beatings that the cameras take, and you’ve likely seen Snapshot Serengeti images tilted at odd angles, or at the sky, or face-down in the dirt.
Every once in a rare while, a camera suddenly switches from “snapshot” mode to “video” mode and instead of taking three pictures, takes ten seconds of video. This video “feature” eats up camera memory very fast and so isn’t good for our research, as we end up running out of memory before we have a chance to re-service the camera. It also doesn’t record any sound.
But the resulting video can be amusing. Here is a series of ten-second clips taken on May 6, 2012. I think I know how the camera got flipped to video mode! Do you?
It begins again.
### I’m traveling to Tanzania currently, about to begin my final field season (which will be Season 6 on Snapshot Serengeti). As usual, I’m running terribly behind getting ready to go – so thought I’d share a blog post I wrote while embarking on Season 2. ###
It Begins Again: Wet Season Survey 2011
As I leave Minnesota, winter seems to be already breaking. Amidst the national mid-winter heatwave, mountains of snow are melting, turning the roads into rivers and the hockey rinks back into lakes. For the third time, I am watching cheesy movies across the atlantic, fast forwarding through day and night, racing the sun eastward across the ocean and winning by 30 lengths like Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes.
Except this doesn’t feel spectacular anymore. I am on my way to Tanzania, once again, with 240 lbs of luggage catapulting around the belly of the plane. My back feels thrown and the plane feels cramped, and the woman sitting next to me snorts and sniffles like some Sesame Street character.
After three weeks of delays, I’m finally heading…home? I’m dreading – just a bit – the madness that awaits me in Serengeti. A solid three weeks behind, I have 200 traps to place in the next 10 days….which happens to be humanly impossible.
See, my research relies primarily on camera traps – remote, automatic cameras that are triggered by heat and motion, attached to trees so that they take pictures of wildlife night and day. On the street they’re known as “hyena bait.” On my street anyway.
Yeah, that’s right. I’ve discovered that hyenas are like big ugly puppies – the world is their chew toy. However, unlike your neighbor’s cute, squirmy blue heeler, hyenas have no responsible owner to say “No! No demolishing the $200 camera trap!” Last year alone, hyenas ate nearly $8,000 in cameras. I would arrive at my excruciatingly selected camera site to find bits and pieces of plastic, the stray LED, a fragment of circuit board…just no camera. Elephants took down about $5,000 in cameras, but with minimal destruction. They typically ripped the offending trap from the tree and flung it out of site. Those cameras usually worked, with some minor case modifications. But the hyena victims? Beyond repair.
Given the abysmal loss rates from the first year of this ambitious (crazy?) camera trapping study, I am now returning to the Serengeti with replacement cameras and heavy duty steel protective cases…which happen to weigh about 1.35 tons apiece. That might be an exaggeration, but the point is that they are very, very heavy. And hopefully hyena-proof.
It is dark outside, though the fancy seat-back TV map says we are smack dab over the Atlantic. I feel like my mind should be racing with plans for my research, or meandering down memory lane – but mostly I am thinking about how good the red wine tastes, and how tired my eyes feel. The night outside seems endless, the world feels far away and frozen in time – like Zach used to do on “Saved by the Bell” – and in my alternate reality I slip guiltlessly into mass-market movies, into staring blankly out the window, the wine wrapping its velvet fingers around my fraying neurons.
I have a million things to do by…yesterday, but my brain is tired and does not want to work. I do not want to think about where on earth I put my hard drive, or the fact that I have not yet filed my taxes despite my imminent disappearance into the bush. I want to fade into the bright, apoplectic flashes of the action movie’s runaway trains or the feel-good underdog story of the horse that could. When I get to Serengeti, it will be a flat-out race against the rains. I want to get my cameras set before the rains keep me hamstrung for days at a time. Today is Feb 19; the rains start at the beginning of March. Can it be done? I guess we’ll see when I get there.
Camera Traps are Pretty Cool…
Studying animals in the wild can be incredibly difficult. In Serengeti, for example, many of the animals we might want to know more about are really shy (like leopards), or aggressive (like buffalo and elephants) — and it’s hard to get close to them to study their behavior. Furthermore, a lot of the wildlife we study is nocturnal – meaning the animals are active at night, in the dark, when it’s virtually impossible to watch them in any meaningful way.
Enter camera traps to save the day. If you’re a researcher, a hunter, or a wildlife enthusiast, you’ve probably heard about camera traps. These are remotely triggered cameras that are transforming the way people study wildlife. Instead of taking pictures of the animals, the animals take pictures of themselves!
You might be surprised to discover that camera traps have been around for a long time. A really long time. In the 1890’s, a fellow named George Shiras developed a system so that wildlife triggered a trip wire, which triggered a flash and the camera shutter – producing the first wildlife “self portraits.” He was pretty creative in inducing the animals to trip the wire – for example, to photograph beavers he would tie the trip wire to a dislodged stick in the beaver’s dam. When the beaver went to repair the dam, it triggered the camera!
Modern technology is making camera traps better and more affordable. Cameras today are triggered by a combination of heat and motion – so the animals trigger the cameras merely by walking in front of them. In recent years, the use of camera traps in research has skyrocketed; they are now widely used to identify the presence of rare, endangered, or even presumed-extinct species; they’re used to estimate species densities, patterns of habitat use, predation, and even the relationships between competing species. Sometimes, the animals caught in cameras have unique markings that allow researchers to identify different individuals – for example, tigers have unique stripes, and leopards and cheetahs have unique spots. But even for animals where this isn’t the case, statisticians are hard at work developing methods capable of dealing with the data that camera traps are pulling in.
All of this means that we can ask really cool questions about a variety of species – but it also means you don’t need to be a scientist – or a statistician – to use camera traps to understand the world around you. Ever wondered what your backyard wildlife is doing at night? It’s never too late to find out!
The things that live inside…the cameras
Whenever I rock up to a camera trap, I sort of hold my breath and brace myself for what I’m going to find. Sometimes I find nothing — elephants have tossed the camera off the tree and into the green grassy oblivion, or hyenas have left dribblings of mangled plastic and tooth-dented batteries — but stories about the never ending crusade to protect the cameras from overenthusiastic large mammals will come another day. Today is about the wildlife that try to make my cameras home.
I’m always a little surprised at what I find. Geckos love to lay their eggs in the metal cases, though they and the skinks tend to act rather molested when I disturb them.
Other inhabitants are a bit slower to react, like this caterpillar:
And then there are some mysteries…
The only thing that I really can’t bear is the ants. Don’t get me wrong, ants are cool – and they do *really* cool things – but they also bite. And when they’ve turned a camera into their home (as in the photo below — those white bits are eggs or larvae), they aren’t particularly welcoming to researchers. I’ll try to get som clearer photos this field season – because I guarantee you, there will be many, many ants to come.