One of the largest camera trap studies done in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, reveals the daily lives of its wild inhabitants as they eat, play, nap, and even take inadvertent selfies.
The scientists of Snapshot Serengeti mounted 225 cameras in a 434 square mile area as an expansion of the ongoing Serengeti Lion Project and the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute‘s surveys of major species.
The cameras captured 1.2 million sets of photos (three photos per set) from June 2010 to May 2013, according to the study published on June 9 in Scientific Data. They have set up a website can search the whole set of images to find your favourites.
What they uncovered gives us an idea of what the daily struggle to survive looks like in one of the most varied and unique ecosystems in the world.
1.6 million wildebeest and zebra migrate across the Serengeti savanna every year. Hoping to catch this awesome show of life, the research group Snapshot Serengeti set up camera traps in the park, which were set off by a combination of heat and movement -- catching lots of images of animals in motion.
... Like this herd of elephants migrating. Many of the 322,653 photos that contained wildlife shows groups of animals. 'The images are supposed to be random,' Swanson said. 'We wanted the cameras to give an unbiased view of how these animals were using the landscape.'
Snapshot Serengeti was stunned by the 1.2 million photos captured. 'We were simply overwhelmed.' So, they partnered with Zooniverse, a citizen science project website, to have volunteers sort through the images. But using non-scientists leaves a lot of room for mistakes when identifying animals. For example the hyenas below are easily recognisable ...
... but they look a lot like the closely related and rarely seen aardwolf. To prevent any confusion Zooniverse had volunteers answer questions about colour, pattern, and size of animals the pictures. So what's the difference between the two? Hyenas are spotted, aardwolves (seen below) are striped.
While the cameras aren't rigged to attract wildlife -- they wanted to see what the animals were doing in their natural habitats, without any humans around -- the group caught tons of amazing photos. 'We wanted the cameras to give an unbiased view of how these animals were using the landscape,' Swanson said. But some of the animals got up close and personal with the cameras anyway, like this curious cheetah.
The cameras even caught rarely seen animals. Honey badgers appeared in just 35 Snapshot Serengeti photos. These seemingly cuddly creatures are notoriously ferocious and are known to defend themselves against much larger animals when escape is impossible. Honey badgers have even been known to prey on venomous vipers like the puff adder and survive their usually fatal bites.
When not catching rare animals doing mundane things, many of the photos caught common animals in some pretty awesome poses. Gazelles, antelopes, and wildebeest make up the majority of the animals in the photos. This young gazelle strikes a pose for the camera trap.
Like many of the mutual relationships between different species of the Serengeti, the three oxpeckers on this warthog's back have developed a cooperative relationship. The warthog relies on the birds to keep his skin free of parasitic insects, which the birds depend on for food. But this may not be a completely mutual relationship. The red-billed birds, which feed from other animals like hippos and zebras, may actually prolong the warthog's wound healing.
The camera traps were set up not just to capture the Serengeti's wildlife, but to show how animals interact with their environment. This lion isn't too bothered by the late-night fire burning in the background.
Young animals were rarely captured without a parent or an adult nearby. This zebra calf seems to have wandered away from the herd and another adult, seen in the background.
The stationary camera traps would have been unable to capture the cheetahs during their typically high-speed chases -- cheetahs can hit up to 60 miles per hour in just three seconds. The camera did catch this cheetah enjoying the spoils of its hunt.
This southern ground hornbill checks out the camera with its mouth. It's one of the many photos captured of animals chewing, pawing, or touching the cameras, which were mounted on trees and poles.
The spiny porcupine usually lives in wooded areas and in trees, so it's rare to see a porcupine out on an evening stroll in the open plains.
The cameras even caught the porcupines below in a private moment never before witnessed in the wild, not even by Swanson. 'One of my all-time favourite photos was a pair of porcupines mating,' she said. 'Porcupines are really cool critters already and you don't see them that often. We've caught a fair share but when we caught them in this very rare event we were like, 'oh, so that's how that works.' '
Just seeing some animals behaving naturally in their habitat was a treat. Swanson said these common elands are elusive, especially their young, so these images of them loitering in front of a camera trap are precious. 'We can see them so candidly,' Swanson said. 'They're very shy antelope, very hard to get up close to them ... These young eland who are staring into the camera, that's something you never see.' The camera traps captured 2,689 photos of elands over two years.
While life on the Serengeti can be rough, very few of the photos included instances of fighting or hunting. That being said, this lion seems to have been photographed in the aftermath of an altercation -- possibly during a hunt or in a fight with other lions.
This hippo warily watches the hyena in the background. Spotted hyena, also known as laughing hyena for their disturbingly mirthful barks, hunt in packs and are bolder in the evening. The hippo, despite its huge size and powerful bite, has every reason to be afraid.
The mass migration of zebras and wildebeests happens throughout the year, as they seek fresh grazing grounds and water. Wildebeests and zebras, along with a fewer number of antelopes and gazelles, migrate together en masse to decrease the probability of individuals being attacked by lions, their primary predator. Wildebeests are also known to respond to alarm calls by other animals, like baboons.
It's impossible to tell whether these watchful eyes are friend or foe, but their eerie glow adds to the fear factor on an already dark night on the Serengeti plains. Zebras are social animals and are rarely found alone and always travel in packs to avoid dangerous situations, like they seem to have found themselves in here.
The Snapshot Serengeti photos also capture moments of tenderness and playfulness. Here, an elephant calf nurses from its mother. Elephants have the longest pregnancies -- 22 months -- of all mammals. Elephant calves weigh an average of 200 pounds by the time of birth and are looked after by the entire group, especially other young elephant mothers. Young elephants form deep emotional bonds with members of their herd, and leave only as teens.
Baboons living on the Savannah typically form large troops, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. They can spend hours examining and grooming one another. This solitary baboon satisfies his curiosity with the camera and takes an artful photo of itself.
Mounting the cameras on trees gave them an advantage in capturing wildlife seeking shade. Here, two zebras take a break from their herd.
Snapshot Serengeti was an extension of the Serengeti Lion Project, but it's become a wildlife phenomenon in its own right. While the study in 'Scientific Data' analysed the 1.2 million photo sets captured from 2010 to 2012, the cameras are still active and taking photos everyday in the Serengeti.
These lions take shelter under the shade during the harsh afternoon heat. Lions appear in about 4,200 photos in a wide range of activities. Many of them can be seen wearing the radio collars the Serengeti Lion Project uses to track their locations.
The study has already concluded, but Swanson estimates that there are still 300,000 photo sets waiting in Tanzania. 'We've actually processed another 700,000 that have already been classified on the website,' she said. 'This kind of research wouldn't be possible without the help of volunteers. Getting everyday people who are not scientists involved has enabled this really cool research.'
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