Science, Tech & Environment

Citizen science project needs your help to catalog Africa's great animals


Photos of these lions on the African savannah were captured as part of the Snapshot Serengeti project. (Photo courtesy of Snapshot Serengeti.)


Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Scientists with the Serengeti Lion Project have been documenting the lives of lions in the Serengeti National Park for more than 40 years.

Of course, in the old days, studying detailed animal interactions meant sending a graduate student out with a diary to conduct hours of observations.

“That’s like trying to understand Britain by sitting in Trafalgar Square for an afternoon,” Lintott said. “You don’t get a picture of everything that’s going on.”

Lintott’s involved with a project called Snapshot Serengeti.

Scientists have set up more than 200 camera traps in the park in Tanzania to capture pictures not just of lions, but of all the wildlife.

But here’s the thing — those 200 cameras capture a lot of photos. Imagine if you had not hundreds, but millions of holiday snapshots from your African safari to sort through.

“The cameras allow us to carpet the whole place, and get a real understanding of what’s going on,” Lintott said. “But only if we have some help in sorting through the three million holiday snaps that we’ve got.”

And so, on the Snapshot Serengeti website, you are asked to look through the pictures. With just a few clicks, you can help identify the animals, number them, and describe what they’re doing in the picture.

“The cameras capture most everything,” Lintott said.

In particular, he remembers one sequence of hyena photos that recently caught his eye.

“The first is the hyena looking straight down the lens, like a superstar out on a Friday night. And the second one, the hyena’s in the background skulking. And the third shot is the inside of the hyena’s mouth as it attacks the camera.” Linott said. “And that’s one of the problems. The animals take a strong interest in the cameras and they don’t survive all that long.”

The cameras can last about two months before needing maintenance and new batteries. Of course, they’re likely to be torn down by elephants or infested by ants before then.

But it’s all worth it.

The photos, Lintott says, will help scientists get a clearer picture of how animals, especially big predators like lions, interact with other big predators in the park.

“Do they compete for food? Do they attack each other? Do they ignore each other and go about their business? And so that’s one of the things we think we can understand by doing this experiment,” he said.

Lintott says experts are also hoping to get a better sense of just how much park land big carnivores need to survive and thrive.

The Snapshot Serengeti project, isn't an isolated project. In fact, Lintott’s group also runs two other popular “citizen science” projects.

One called Old Weather gives you the chance to mine old Navy ships’ logs for climate data. Another, called Galaxy Zoo, allows you to help classify galaxies.