At this very moment in Serengeti National Park, 200 cameras are flashing. They are flashing night and day, in corners of the park where tourists never go. These are camera traps - remote, automatic cameras - and they are documenting the secret lives of Serengeti's most elusive animals.
My hope is that these cameras will reveal how Africa's top carnivores coexist. As a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota, I am working with Dr. Craig Packer and the Serengeti Lion Project to put lion research into a multi-species context. Across Africa, lions overwhelm and suppress leopards, cheetahs and wild dogs. In contrast, hyenas thrive among lions, even though lions steal more food from hyenas than the other way around. So how do lions, hyenas, leopards and cheetahs manage to co-exist in so many parts of Africa - even though they will kill each other if they get the chance?
Because the Lion Project monitors more than 300 lions in the heart of Serengeti, using radio-collars to track each pride, we have a very detailed picture of how the lions are using the landscape. But no such monitoring exists for the other carnivore species.
That's where the camera traps come in. The cameras cover 1,000 square kilometers of the Lion Project's long-term study area. They snap pictures day and night, documenting how the other species are using the habitat with respect to the lions. By combining the data from the camera traps with the up-close-and-personal observations of Serengeti lions, I can create a complete picture of the interactions between top predators - revealing how behavior and environment coincide to drive their coexistence.
What started off as a "mere" Ph.D. project has grown far beyond anyone's initial expectations. The 200 cameras capture more than a million pictures each year - and the data from the cameras will be used to address endless questions about the larger Serengeti ecosystem. With simultaneous coverage of such a vast area, researchers will be able to assess large-scale patterns of movement between predators and prey, as well as study the dynamics among prey species themselves. Furthermore, this is the first time in the history of Serengeti research that we will have information on what the 1.5 million wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle do at night!
Our "problem" is that we're drowning in an ocean of data. Currently, the images have to wait for months on end until Dr. Packer and I can hand-carry the external hard drives back to Minnesota, where they can be posted online. We've recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for satellite Internet so images can be posted online in minutes, not months, essentially bringing the Serengeti "Live! to a computer near you." Crowdfunding is a method of raising funds through lots of small, private donations. We've teamed up with 48 other research groups as part of the #SciFund Challenge to see if crowdfunding can offer a viable alternative to the traditional methods of scientific funding.
In addition to raising money, the crowdfunding campaign also raises awareness of our research and makes it easier to connect with a broad audience. With a million images coming in each year, it takes time - a lot of time - to process the data. So we're turning to the general public not just for help raising funds, but for help with the actual scientific process. By going to www.SerengetiLive.com, people from all over the world can sign up to identify the wildlife species caught on our candid cameras. We currently have a team of more than 60 dedicated volunteers who have identified hundreds and thousands of images, and our team is growing every day.
Our project helps to identify the conditions that permit coexistence of top predators and how these relationships might be affected by impending environmental change. These insights will guide strategies for species reintroduction, conservation, and ecosystem management.
Ali Swanson is a doctoral student and National Science Foundation graduate research fellow in the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences. Photos courtesy Ali Swanson.