Minn. researchers launch citizen science project "Snapshot Serengeti"

Serengeti lions
A photo captured through Snapshot Serengeti. The project, developed by University of Minnesota researchers uses volunteer "citizen scientists" to sift through images captured by more than 200 heat-and-motion-activated cameras over a 1,000-square-mile grid of the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.
Courtesy University of Minnesota

A new online project by the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences asks volunteer "citizen scientists" to help researchers learn more about Serengeti wildlife.

Graduate student Ali Swanson helped create the project, called Snapshot Serengeti. Researchers placed more than 200 heat-and-motion-activated cameras over a 1,000-square-mile grid of the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, in order to capture photos of animals in their natural habitat.

Swanson admits a big reason she took the project to the public is she needs the help: she has so far collected nearly 4.5 million photos since 2010 that she needs to catalog.

"I did not anticipate getting a million photos a year when I got the survey," she said on The Daily Circuit Dec. 12.

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But she also likes the idea of getting the general public involved with actual scientific research.

The photo project grew out of Swanson's dissertation; she studied lions co-existing with other large carnivores, including leopards, cheetahs and hyenas.

With 225 cameras, Swanson says that's like "having 225 pairs of eyes monitoring the Serengeti, so researchers can see how species move from one camera to another across the landscape.

"So still photos, by giving us a snapshot at many locations, still give us a lot of information about how animals are distributing themselves," she said.

Volunteers who sign up will help identify the species they see in each photo, as well as what movement the animal might be making. And don't worry if you get it wrong; Swanson says each photo will be viewed 5 to 25 times so everyone's answers will be compared.

"It's okay to make a mistake," she said.

And Swanson's favorite photos so far? One shows lions feasting on a zebra and another shows two porcupines mating.

Swanson will join The Daily Circuit Wednesday, Dec. 12 to discuss the project.

Try your hand at identifying Serengeti wildlife. View more of the animals captured on camera on the project's Twitter page.