U of M Gives Snapshot of the Serengeti

Updated: 02/27/2013 8:33 AM KSTP.com By: Chris Egert

University of Minnesota is a world leader in lion research, with a significant presence on the African Serengeti for over 30 years.

We recently returned from the national park in Tanzania to show you a new project, just unveiled, that lets you help conduct research from your home computer.

7,600 miles away from the University of Minnesota, on the dusty red plains of the Serengeti, you see some of the most beautiful wildlife in the world.

Including lions, not behind the glass walls of a zoo, but freely roaming wherever they like.

PhD candidate Ali Swanson says sometimes it's hard to believe this is her office six months out of the year.

Swanson regularly sees elephants, baboons, and hyenas right off the front porch.

She said, “It’s hard to complain when we have the wildlife walking across the veranda on any given morning or evening.  Yeah, it's hard to complain."

The veranda she speaks of is at the University of Minnesota's "lion house". It's part rustic home and part research lab.

“The house is what we call a bit primitive, we don't have much in the way of running water. Our toilet is outside, which makes for some more exciting encounters with wildlife.  And until very recently we didn't have a working refrigerator, which made food storage interesting,"  Swanson remarked.

Logistical challenges aside the three people who live in this house most of the year are extremely honored to be here.

Daniel Rosengren spends days at a time using a land rover, and radio collars to monitor about 380 lions in 30 different prides.

"These guys were born mid September 2011, so like a year an a few months," he said.

But the fact of the matter is, most people will never get as close to a lion as those working on the lion project.

That's what makes this a new program called "Snapshot Serengeti" so exciting.

Swanson, and another biologist, a native Tanzanian, named Stan Mwampeta have placed 225 wildlife cameras in hard to reach locations around the Serengeti.

Driving down a steep hill, and through a stream is all in a day's work.

The camera traps are triggered by motion and heat sensors, and capture photos on tiny data cards.

That is, if the critters don't bring the cameras down first!

As Swanson used a wireless screwdriver to fix a busted camera casing, she explained that hyenas are especially troublesome.   She believes the hyenas, “Rub against it as a scratching post!"

Photo cards in the cameras have to be manually removed -- and then physically uploaded to a computer.

With only a few people to go over hundreds and thousands of pictures -- they decided to ask the public for help.

Citizen science they call it -- a way for the public to look at the pictures captured by the camera traps -- and help determine which pictures are worth studying further.

Swanson couldn’t keep the smile off her face when she talks about the project.

She beamed, "We've never before been able to bring people inside our research in such a tangible way." 

The Snapshot Serengeti website has been wildly popular so far -- it launched in mid-December, and had 18,000 people log on in the first few days!

She says within 3 or 4 days, website users had looked at 2 years worth of photos.

They will use the data gathered to help answer any number of questions.

"Through space and time, how does variation in the landscape drive the diversity and stability of the Serengeti, so the amount of data these cameras are producing is mind-blowing," Swanson explained.

And if that thought is a little too deep for you, here’s a more playful explanation of what makes Snapshot Serengeti so unique.    

Swanson concluded, "To me this is so cool, because it is so hard to access otherwise -- and it is fun!"