Ecologists Are Using Over 300,000 Animal Selfies to Study the Serengeti
All images: Snapshot Serengeti

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Ecologists Are Using Over 300,000 Animal Selfies to Study the Serengeti

The ambitious survey was the largest trap camera study to date.
June 9, 2015, 4:35pm

We're all pretty sick of talking about selfies, but forget about Kim Kardashian's self-portrait prowess for a minute and take a look at this cheetah selfie:

Or this baboon selfie:

Three words: baby zebra selfie.

These images are part of a massive cache of photos captured during the largest-ever camera trap study. Camera traps are systems designed to take furtive photos of wildlife, remotely—they're triggered when motion or heat sensors are set off by nearby creatures. While researchers typically use only 20 or 30 cameras when conducting a trap study, ecology grad students at the University of Minnesota used 225 traps across 1,000 square kilometers in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park, to collect more than 1 million images over three years, as part of a study published today in Scientific Data.

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It marks the largest camera trap study to date and also provides a solution for what to do once you've collected such a massive pile of unidentified images, making large-scale projects like this more feasible for researchers.

"A lot of times, what people who put out camera traps are doing is trying to track maybe one or two or three rare species, or doing a population count in a particular area," Margaret Kosmala, one of the study authors who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, told me over the phone. "In our study, we were interested in understanding the dynamics of all of the medium and large-sized animals in the system, and there's about 40 of them."

To study such a wide breadth of different species, Kosmala and her colleagues needed to conduct a much bigger study than is typical. But once the study had gathered a few years' worth of data, they weren't able to go through all 1.2 million images on their own, so they asked the public for help.

The researchers partnered with Zooniverse, a citizen science project platform, to put the entire database of images online, calling the project Snapshot Serengeti. Volunteers were then asked to look through the images and tag animals they identified. Each photo was shown to at least 10 people, and then their collective tags were run through an algorithm.

The Snapshot Serengeti program makes it easy to identify animals, even if you're a novice.

"It's a simple algorithm that counts up which species got the most tags for that image," Kosmala said. "To test it, we hand-classified 4,000 images and compared it with answers we got out of the algorithm. The citizen science answers were 97 percent accurate."

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Not only was it accurate, but the project also proved very popular. The researchers were hoping to entice maybe 200 volunteers to tag photos, but more than 28,000 people ended up participating. They categorized a year and a half's worth of photos in just 10 days, Kosmala said. Of the 1.2 million images, 322,653 contained animals.

But as cute and fascinating as these images are, what can scientists do with 300,000 giraffe, lion, and leopard selfies? Kosmala said they're using this data to answer a lot of different questions about how the animals in the Serengeti interact. The original goal of the study was to learn how the different carnivores live alongside one another. Lions, leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas are all pretty badass animals, and they all eat the same food—so how do they manage to live in the same area?

Now that the scientists have images of 40 separate species, Kosmala told me they can also use the data to investigate lots of other questions as well, like how all the herbivores interact.

"There are 20 different plant-eaters and we have the same sort of questions: 'how do they all manage to survive together?'" Kosmala said. "They need to find the best quality food but at the same time they need to avoid the predators. If you were a predator, wouldn't you hang out where the best grass is because that's where all the herbivores are? How do the herbivores weigh this decision? That's the sort of questions we're looking at."

We'll let the ecologists do the heavy lifting of discovering what we can learn from these images. In the meantime, I'm just going to keep looking at serval selfies.