Ecologist Alexandra Swanson and her colleagues have place some 225 cameras in remote locations across the Serengeti national Park, some of the cameras mounted on steel poles staked into the ground and other fixed to tress in 2010.
Those cameras are paying remarkable dividends in the form of wild life documentation. Recently, Swanson’s research team has decided to go public with the animal photos. These photos include captivating shots of hippos, buffalos, lions, elephants, impalas, giraffes and more.
But the researchers couldn’t unleash all 1.2 million photos onto the internet. They have to first identify the animals and the photos must be organized. Hence, researchers have recruited volunteers through a citizen web portal called Zooniverse.
28,000 volunteers from over 70 countries scanned photos and voted on the species classification of the pictured animal. Each photo was reviewed by an average of 15 people, with the most voted species getting the official nod.
Researchers have also tried to make the process as user friendly as possible.
Margaret Kosmala, one of Swanson’s collaborators said, “We also have a ‘looks like’ filter. If, say, the person has no idea what it is but thinks it looks like an antelope, they can filter the list to what looks like an antelope. There are also filters based on coat patterns, colors, whether you can see spots or bands or stripes of colors. You’re also able to look at different views and angles of animals.”
The classification effort was double checked by experts. Roughly 4,000 of the reviewed photos were given to experienced biologists. Their reviews showed that the volunteers have accurately identified the animal more than 96 percent of time.
The full database of the animal photos is available online for free perusal.
Researchers say that identifying animals turned out to be a simple problem compared to keeping cameras in working order. Each year, scientists have to replace roughly a quarter of the cameras.
Swanson, a postdoctoral fellow at Oxford said, “The herbivores will rub up against them, but the hyenas will just chew through them, and then the elephants rip the cameras off their mounts and throw them across the ground. Sometimes I’d get to a camera position and find bits of plastic strewn all around.”
Swanson was earning her PhD with the University of Minnesota when she began the project and her colleagues are using the photos to keep better stock of the park’s wildlife populations and to understand how animals use, share and divide habitat.