• November 26, 2014

Hidden Cameras Reveal the Secret Life of the Serengeti

Becky Harlan

Many hands, or in this case, many eyes, make light work. It’s a saying that scientists studying wildlife on the Serengeti recently put to the test.

Dr. Craig Packer, founder of the Serengeti Lion Project, and one of his graduate students, Ali Swanson, wanted to understand how so many species were able to co-exist with lions, which are, Packer explains, “pretty nasty to all the other carnivores.” So they decided to use camera traps. The hidden cameras captured a short sequence of photos when triggered by motion, creating a sort of who’s who at the watering hole.

A Ground Hornbill, which is a black and red bird, examines the camera,
A Ground Hornbill

In 2010, Swanson created a grid of 225 camera traps so that she could see how “different carnivores managed to avoid each other.” But she was quickly overwhelmed by the large number of photos each month. Enter the citizen scientists. Teaming with Zooniverse, Swanson and another graduate student, Margaret Kosmala, asked for help from laypeople to identify the animals photographed by the camera traps. And with that, the Snapshot Serengeti project was born.

Picture of an elephant in the Serengeti

Here’s how it worked: every four to six weeks from June 2010 to May 2013, field assistants visited the camera traps, replacing batteries and swapping out memory cards. The photos they collected were put onto hard drives and sent back to Minnesota, loaded onto a supercomputer at the University of Minnesota, and linked to Zooniverse where volunteers viewed the photos at random. The volunteers could view as many photos as they wanted, and their classifications were recorded.

Picture of impala, jumping

As for quality control, Packer explains how it worked, “Our computers kept a running tally of everyone’s classifications for each photo. If the first five people all said that there was no animal visible in a particular photo, it was classified as “empty” and taken off line. If 10 people were unanimous in saying that an animal was, say, a giraffe or warthog, we accepted the consensus, and, again, the photo was retired. If the first 10 people showed any disagreement in their classifications, the photo was kept online until they were assessed by 25 different people, whereupon we accepted the plurality vote.”

WATCH: A highlights reel of wildlife sightings captured by hidden camera traps

And how did the citizens perform? “It turns out that, collectively, citizen scientists are extremely good in correctly identifying the species in these photos: compared to the judgements of a panel of experts who have viewed a selection of 4,400 photos, the Snapshot volunteers were correct about 97% of the time!”

Picture of a herd of buffalo
A Herd of Buffalo

After the photos were classified, the date and location of each image was used to place the animals across the grid. “We can see how each species has moved around a 700 square mile area month by month for the past three years,” says Packer.

Picture of a group of female lions resting
A Group of Lionesses

The numbers are impressive. In all, 32,935 registered volunteers (and almost as many unregistered users) classified 1.54 million photographic sequences. (When triggered, the cameras shot three frames during the day and one frame at night.) It’s obvious that the arrangement benefited scientists. With numbers that large, Packer says it would have taken scientists months or years to finish what took citizens a couple of days.

Picture of a cheetah with cheetah cubs
A Cheetah With Cubs

But what was the draw for the volunteers? Not only did they have a front row seat on a safari from their living room, but there was an element of discovery in looking through the photos. “Nothing, nothing, wildebeest, nothing, wildebeest, nothing nothing, then LEOPARD!! It’s like hitting the jackpot!” Packer says. “We also had an active blog and chat-rooms for volunteers, so a lot of people felt like part of the research team.”

Photograph of a topi swatting flies with its tail
A Topi

These covert observations have opened up a world of information about community dynamics.“We’ve seen a lot of interactions between species that I doubt anyone has ever observed before, like bat-eared foxes chasing off an aardwolf, and topi saying hello to warthog.” Some of Packer’s favorites? “Mating porcupines, oxpeckers roosting in the crotch of a giraffe, a small herd of eland posed like a bouquet, spectacular views of zebra and wildebeest herds running directly towards the camera, and any LEOPARD!” He really likes leopards.

The interview with Dr. Craig Packer was conducted by Tess Vincent.

Want to be a citizen scientist? You can volunteer to work on other Zooniverse projects like Bat Detective and Cyclone Center. To learn more about Snapshot Serengeti, visit their website or read more from National Geographic.

There are 20 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Addison
    December 5, 2014

    I thought the pictures were lovley

  2. Joe Bloggs
    December 3, 2014

    Thank you very much. Great article

  3. Christine
    December 1, 2014

    If I could go back in time and start over again, I would have pursued photography as a career… Just to be able to capture such incredible natural beauty, Love this!

  4. Tina Gaffneytina
    December 1, 2014

    it’s a beautiful thing

  5. Dani B-C
    December 1, 2014

    These are amazing photos, while every animal was seen in a somehow more true way that baby elephant pic, was my favorite. I’m already an elephant geek but something about seeing that close, I’m even more a fan! Great work

  6. Valentina Prati
    December 1, 2014

    Good job guys. I love it please show us more if you can!

  7. g h lwebandiza
    December 1, 2014

    I live in Tanzania. I have been a visitor of Serengeti since my childhood. Serengeti has never siezed to fascinate me even today although today it does not give me the same feeling as it did when I was young.

  8. Edward Pinkerton
    December 1, 2014

    These are so amazing because they are so candid. The camera operator always affects the footage via his own filters. But with just a camera u get to see more of the true personality of the animals involved.. So well done.

  9. Jaanav
    November 28, 2014

    Good job Natgeo Wild share more if you can. It’s awesome work

  10. kingston joe emile
    November 28, 2014

    Some animals are beautiful,when looking at the pictures tells me their is a creator.

  11. tata
    November 28, 2014

    i like it its cool thx nat geo

  12. Susan
    November 27, 2014

    the cheetahs and Cubs !

  13. Susan
    November 27, 2014

    Wonderful work … The cheetahs and the CBS .. Just adorable .. So special

  14. Nilesh Shah
    November 27, 2014

    It’s awesome work . Please share some more if you can . Great job .

  15. Zikri Teo
    November 27, 2014

    Would we be able to see what the set up of the camera looked like that made these animals so curious?

  16. arun kottur
    November 26, 2014

    can this reach to the kids all over the world

  17. Erica cavalli beard
    November 26, 2014

    The most spectacular place on earth….heaven on earth , peace beyond words…let’s protect it by making the world aware of the danger it’s in! Nature is the hidden spirt of mankind!

  18. Roi’ikka-Ta
    November 26, 2014

    hahaha. These animations are awesome. They go well with the music I’m listening to “Gom Kora” by Red Buddha lol .. ^ _ ^

  19. vs Vandana
    November 26, 2014

    This is so candid and beautiful. It’s like you watch all the neighbours from the neighbourhood visiting the place at different times of the day. What an harmonious coexistence

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