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Serengeti Snapshots Reveal Secret Life of Animals

Jun 10, 2015 12:36 PM EDT
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Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, is one of the most diverse and well-studied ecosystems in the world, and yet there is still much more to learn about the behavior and lifestyle of the species that call it home. Now, thanks to crowdsourcing and the largest-ever scientific camera trapping survey, unique snapshots are revealing the secret life of Serengeti's most elusive animals.

Camera traps - that is, remote automatic cameras triggered by heat or motion - have revolutionized the way scientists conduct wildlife ecology and conservation research. However, while they are advantageous, snapping photos day and night produces a mind-boggling number of images, making it difficult to categorize and analyze all of them.

So after setting up 225 hidden cameras over a 1,000-square-kilometer expanse in the Serengeti, University of Minnesota doctoral student Alexandra Swanson had no idea what to do with the 1.2 million images she had amassed.

"This was the largest camera tracking survey conducted in science to date," Swanson said in a press release. "We wanted to study how predators and their prey co-existed across a dynamic landscape. We needed to answer different questions than camera traps had answered previously."

As part of the "Snapshot Serengeti" project, she teamed up with The Zooniverse, a citizen-science platform, which asked non-scientist volunteers to review Swanson's pictures.

With these photos, researchers can get a better idea of how different carnivores divide space and time in the Serengeti, as well as how animals interact within their ecosystems, according to the new study.

More than 28,000 volunteers responded, classifying images, identifying species, counting individuals and characterizing behaviors. Of the 1.2 million collected images, 322,653 contained animals, with 40 separate species identified, including rare animals such as the aardwolf, zorilla and honey badger.

There were more than 100,000 wildebeest sightings, for example, an animal famous for its annual migration across the park. Likewise, passing zebra triggered the cameras on more than 70,000 occasions.

(Photo : MGHouge/ Snapshot Serengti)

"Computer vision research is now on the cusp of being able to recognize animals in camera trap images, but when we started Snapshot Serengeti a few years ago, there was no automated way to identify the animals in our pictures," Swanson said. "We needed to rely on the human eye."

"Without volunteer help, the research wouldn't have been possible," she added.

Each photo was rated by at least 10 different users, according to Live Science. When experts later reviewed more than 4,000 of the photos, there was 96.6 accuracy for species identification and 90 percent accuracy for species count, the researchers said.

The project is the largest camera survey ever, and Swanson's team hopes that they get enough money to check on the cameras every six to eight weeks to continue their groundbreaking research.

Researchers especially need to study the Serengeti while they can, as a recent study showed that the national park is disappearing.

Threats such as climate change, population growth and land development are putting increased pressure on this valuable ecosystem, which supports a great diversity of fauna and birdlife, as well as special and rare plants.

At least, now scientists may be able to shed light on the secret life of the Serengeti before it's too late.

The findings were published in the journal Scientific Data.


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