Africa’s Serengeti National Park is a wildlife haven that biologists are keen to monitor and conserve, but as you can imagine, chasing after its diverse range of inhabitants and manually attempting to photograph and document them would be a monstrous task. Thankfully, scientists came up with a clever alternative: camera traps. These remote, automatic cameras can be placed across areas of interest for prolonged periods of time, conducting ongoing wildlife surveys and thus slashing the amount of time researchers need to spend in the field.
While this method has undoubtedly helped revolutionize wildlife ecology, scientists are soon faced with another arduous task when the survey comes to an end: analyzing the hordes of data that these cameras collect. That’s why a team of researchers joined heads to develop a new citizen science platform called Snapshot Serengeti, which proved that many hands can make light work.
Between the years of 2010 and 2013, the team deployed 225 camera traps across more than 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles) of Tanzanian land and snapped a staggering 1.2 million sets of images. The idea behind this mega-survey was to investigate how predators and their prey co-exist throughout a dynamic landscape, lead author Alexandra Swanson said in a statement.
Although computer programs that can identify species are now coming into existence, when the project was first established they simply weren’t reliable enough. Therefore, the researchers decided to call upon the public to help catalog this huge dataset. And the response was overwhelming; almost 30,000 individuals donated their time to the project, volunteering to classify the pictures, identify and count individuals in them and characterize their behaviors.
After each of the images were analyzed by several different volunteers, the researchers developed a simple algorithm to identify a final consensus in the classifications and a measure of agreement among the answers. As described in Scientific Data, this revealed that more than 320,000 of the photographs contained wildlife, documenting an impressive 40 different species, including rare animals like the aardwolf and zorilla (no, that’s not a zebra/gorilla hybrid, it’s a small striped mammal).
Om nom nom. SnapshotSerengeti
“This project is a great example of how citizen science can contribute to real research,” said Swanson. “We all know that people are good at pattern recognition, so harnessing the power of volunteers will become increasingly important for ecology studies. We can engage people with no scientific background to help in producing publishable scientific research at a scope and scale that would otherwise have been impossible.”