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University of Minnesota researchers launch online citizen science project to study Serengeti animals

'Snapshot Serengeti' brings Tanzanian field research home via 225 heat-and-motion-activated cameras

December 11, 2012

Imagine participating in field research in the Serengeti, observing how animals such as lions, leopards, cheetahs, zebras, wildebeests and hyenas behave when they don’t know anyone is watching. Well now you can, from the comfort of your own home.

"Snapshot Serengeti" (www.snapshotserengeti.org), an online citizen science project created by researchers in the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences, makes it possible.

Graduate students Ali Swanson and Margaret Kosmala along with renowned lion researcher Craig Packer, professor of ecology, evolution and behavior, developed the site to enlist volunteers to identify millions of "camera trap" photos taken to study animal behavior in the Serengeti. The site launches on Zooniverse, the world’s largest and most successful citizen science portal, on December 11.

Swanson has strategically placed 225 heat-and-motion-activated cameras over a 1,000-square-mile grid of the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, to capture close-up, candid shots of animals. The three ecologists are seeking to learn how large mammals co-exist in their habitat and how predators and herbivores interact across a large area.

"This is the most exciting and engaging field research we have ever done," says Packer, who has conducted field research in the Serengeti for 34 years.

The camera trap survey began as fieldwork for Swanson’s Ph.D. research on carnivore coexistence. "Understanding how these species coexist has broad implications for conservation, especially for large carnivores," she says. Because computer technology is not yet sophisticated enough to reliably identify animals in photographs, each image has to be analyzed by human eyes. With millions of images taken already and the cameras still rolling, Snapshot Serengeti invites the public to help review and catalog them all.

"We're asking people to identify the animal species caught on camera, as well as their behavior, group size and the presence of young." Swanson explains. "This will allow us to analyze species distributions, ranging patterns and population dynamics." A brief, simple tutorial on the site prepares volunteers to begin.

Snapshot Serengeti joins several research projects on the Zooniverse portal, which was co-founded by Lucy Fortson, professor of physics and astronomy in the College of Science and Engineering. Other projects range across fields as diverse as space exploration, climate change, archaeology, marine biology and cancer research. Ancient Lives, another Zooniverse project from the University of Minnesota, uses volunteers to classify ancient Greek texts and documents.          

"Snapshot Serengeti is another example of projects involving University of Minnesota researchers using the cutting-edge technique of crowdsourcing to overcome major research challenges," Fortson says.

In return for their help with the research, citizen scientists have the unique opportunity to view Serengeti animals behaving naturally in the wild. In addition to the emblematic wildebeests, zebra, giraffes, and lions, rare and nocturnal animals make regular appearances in the images.

"What I love about these cameras is that they capture things that are incredibly rare to see in person – like a lioness taking down a zebra or porcupines mating," says Swanson.

"Snapshot Serengeti" is operated by the long-term Serengeti Lion Project, which is primarily supported via funding from the National Science Foundation.

A snapshot of "Snapshot":

Lion and cub

Nocturnal buffalo fight

Gazelles

Cheetah with cubs

Dik-dik

Hartebeest and calf at night

Warthog and Oxpeckers

Zebra sunset

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