Note: Meredith wrote this blog post, but is having internet problems in Africa, so I am posting it on her behalf.
Pole sana on the lack of recent field updates – it’s been a busy week or two and I’ve traveled halfway across Africa in the meanwhile! Sad to say, I’ve left Serengeti behind for now. I was able to set up almost all of the replacement cameras I brought down with me and completed three new rounds for my playback experiments. I then took a few days off and spent my birthday traveling around in Ethiopia, soaking in some history and culture (and eating really excellent food!). It’s nice to have a break from constant science every once in a while. I went around what is known as the “Northern Circuit” and visited the four historic cities of Gondar, Lalibella, Aksum, and Bahir Dar. I got to visit island monasteries, rock-hewn churches, the palace of the Queen of Sheba, and even made a trip to the church purported to be where the True Ark of the Covenant is kept! Have to say, the trip made me feel very “Indiana Jones”, right up until the point where I got ill from drinking the water…
After a week in Ethiopia, I flew down to Johannesburg, South Africa, to meet up with Craig and another graduate student we’re working with, Natalia. Natalia is interested in cognition and has been testing the creative problem solving and impulse control of different kinds of carnivores. We’ve spent the last few days at a reserve outside of Pretoria called Dinokeng, run by Kevin “the Lion Whisperer” Richardson. Kevin maintains a park with dozens of semi-captive lions, leopards, and hyenas which Natalia can work with for her intelligence experiments. While Natalia has been busy with her research, I’ve been putting together a rig that will enable me to examine herbivore responses to four predator species: cheetah, wild dog, lion, and hyena. Two of these predators (lion and cheetah) hunt by sneaking up on their prey, whereas the others (wild dog and hyena) rely on endurance to run prey down. I’m looking to see whether prey respond to each species of predator differently, or whether there are consistent differences in anti-predatory response by predator hunting type. I’ll be simulating predator encounters because it would be incredibly difficult to observe a sufficient number of actual encounters in the wild. As soon as I find a good internet connection, I’ll post pictures of just exactly how I plan on doing this — it’s pretty great, and I don’t want to ruin the surprise!
Just this morning, the three of us packed up all of our gear and took a small plane out of Pretoria up to South Africa’s Northern Cape province. We’ll be spending the next three to four weeks up here in the Kalahari conducting our experiments. In addition to looking at anti-predator responses, I’ll be helping to set up a NEW camera trap grid (perhaps Snapshot Serengeti will be joined by Kalahari Cameras sometime in the near future…?). Now that we’re back in action, more updates soon!
Last month, I wrote about how, despite lions killing cheetah cubs left and right, they don’t seem to be suppressing cheetah population size like they do for wild dogs. And, that despite all this killing, that cheetahs don’t seem to be avoiding lions – but I didn’t have radio-collar data for wild dogs.
Well, now I do!
Although we’ve had collared lions continuously since 1984, Serengeti cheetahs and wild dogs were only collared from 1985-1990. We worked with Tim Caro, former director of the cheetah project, to access the historic cheetah data a year ago, but it was only a month ago that we finally tracked down the historic wild dog data. Thanks to a tip by a former Frankfurt Zoological Society employee, we found the data tucked away in the recesses of one of their Serengeti-based storage containers – and Craig braved a swarm of very angry bees to retrieve it!
The good news is that the data was totally worth it. Just like we suspected, even though cheetahs didn’t seem to be avoiding lions, wild dogs were. This map shows lion densities in the background, with cheetah (in brown dots) and wild dog (black triangles) locations overlaid on the lion densities.
It’s a pretty cool contrast. Even though lions kill cheetah cubs left and right, cheetahs do not avoid lions, nor do their populations decline as lions increase. In sharp contrast, wild dogs do avoid lions, and their populations also drop as lions increase. Now, that’s not to say that there weren’t other factors influencing the decline of wild dogs in Serengeti, but across Africa, this pattern seems to hold.
Speaking of wild dogs, has any one seen any in Season 6?