Camera-trap images reveal Serengeti life

22nd December 2012

Scientists are using millions of images of Africa’s elusive animals to find out how they co-exist in the Serengeti.

Hundreds of camera traps were set up across Serengeti National Park in one of the world’s largest camera surveys. The project, called Snapshot Serengeti, invites the public to collaborate with scientists to identify the animals via an interactive website.

The team says classifying the huge number of images will allow them to build a unique picture of wildlife. Stretching 5,700 sq miles (14,763 sq km), the Serengeti is Tanzania’s oldest national park, covering vast open grassland and wooded hills.

“The idea is that if we can say what’s in [the pictures] and what the animals are doing then we can get the true picture of what… life on the Serengeti is like,” said Dr Chris Lintott from the University of Oxford who specialises in citizen science.

The scientists are calling on members of the public to help them via the interactive website Snapshot Serengeti, launched this week. It is the latest citizen science study organised by the Zooniverse project, led by the University of Oxford and Adler Planetarium. Previous Zooniverse collaborations with members of the public have included projects to classify ocean floor life and cancer samples.

“Computers are really bad at identifying species,” said Dr Lintott, director of Zooniverse. He explained that tests carried out by the research team showed that non-scientific members of the public were just as effective at identifying species as the scientists.

The team hopes that the prospect of viewing some unusual shots of animals’ private lives will attract people to take part. “One of my favourite photos [is] porcupines mating,” said PhD researcher Ali Swanson from the University of Minnesota, US, who initiated the camera survey and regularly visits the camera traps.

“The cameras are catching photographs of things that I’ve never seen after being out there for a lot of the last three years.” Director of Zooniverse

For example, “male cheetahs like to spray the camera traps, so I get some very intimate shots,” she told BBC Nature.

Many close-up shots are taken when animals approach the equipment to sniff and investigate: “we get a lot of noses, which is entertaining,” said Ms Swanson.

Each time a camera senses motion it takes a sequence of three photographs, building up a flip-book-like database of images.

Using the action shots, researchers will investigate questions such as how carnivores interact with each other, and how predators and prey co-exist on the plains.

Traditionally, capturing animals’ private lives on camera would have involved researchers in the field observing from a particular spot. But this method can create a picture of what’s happening in a wider area.

The camera survey method allows Ms Swanson and her colleagues to observe how animals, especially carnivores, use their landscape: “They move over such huge areas and it’s really hard to watch them,” she said.

“The camera survey lets us study species on a scale we haven’t been able to do before.”

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