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Big Data for Big Animals: Citizen Science Helps Mozambican Wildlife

A baboon takes a “selfie” by checking out a motion-activated trail camera in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique
A baboon takes a “selfie” by checking out a motion-activated trail camera in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

I check the ‘Talk’ forum on WildCam Gorongosa every day to see what’s new. “Is this blurry antelope at night a bushbuck or a reedbuck?” This is a tough one even for the most expert ecologist. As a scientist who spent several years studying herbivores in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique,  I plan to chime in, but I find that three other people responded to the question already, and they’re all correct. This is the beauty of citizen science – the collective knowledge of the group outweighs the uncertainty of the individual.

Paola Bouley and her team of lion researchers working on the Gorongosa Lion Project are counting on this collective intelligence to help them with a common problem in science today: they have too much data. They are embarking on the first in-depth study of Gorongosa’s lion population since the 15-year civil war in Mozambique, which ended in 1992. This conflict displaced thousands of Mozambicans and devastated Gorongosa’s wildlife populations, especially large animals like buffalo, zebra, and elephants that were poached and sold for weapons. With the disappearance of these large animals, large predators, like lions, also diminished in number. Since a major restoration project began in 2004 to protect and restore the park, these megafauna appear to be making a gradual recovery. Researchers are actively monitoring how each of Gorongosa’s animal populations are responding to restoration efforts, while adapting their strategies as new information is gathered.

Domingas Aleixo opens a trail camera to replace its batteries and SD card.
Domingas Aleixo opens a trail camera to replace its batteries and SD card.

In 2012, the Gorongosa Lion Project began the difficult work of tracking wide-ranging, elusive lions across a 1,500-square-mile wilderness of Gorongosa. The team started using motion-triggered trail cameras to capture photos of individual lions, other predators, and their prey. In addition to Bouley, the team includes Celina Dias and Domingas Aleixo promising young researchers from nearby villages that are the first female Mozambicans to study lions. Dias, Aleixo, and Bouley spend countless hours traversing rugged terrain to check on the array of over 50 cameras set up in the far reaches of the park. This includes hiking several miles through a limestone gorge with their GPS device looking for a single tree with a camera strapped to it. Each time they approach a camera trap, it’s a bit nerve-wracking. Will the camera have been destroyed by a curious animal, or knocked into the river? So far, most of their cameras have survived their time in the wilderness. Each time they visit a camera, they open the protective casing and remove their prize: an SD card that holds thousands of photos captured over the past few months. They then replace the batteries and put in a new SD card so the camera can continue snapping photos of wildlife passersby.

Celina Dias finds a lioness while searching through trail camera photos.
Celina Dias finds a lioness while searching through trail camera photos.

In the past, the team would return to camp and spend hours poring through photos looking for lions and logging data manually. Three years and 230,000 photos later, they are finally getting some help. They have partnered with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s BioInteractive to create WildCam Gorongosa – a website to crowdsource animal identifications. They also teamed up with the Zooniverse, a non-profit that has developed a suite of online citizen science projects and gained a loyal following of over 1.3 million volunteers to identify everything from galaxies to penguins in photos to support scientific research.

Identifying a bushbuck on WildCam Gorongosa
Identifying a bushbuck on WildCam Gorongosa

On WildCam Gorongosa, you are served up a random photo and given a list of 50 animals, as well as options for “Nothing Here” and “Fire”. A set of filters allows you to narrow the choices by type of animal, color, pattern, horns, tail, and body shape. Once you think you know what animal it is, you select how many there are, what the animal is doing, and whether there are any young animals in the photo. After you make your identification, you have the option to discuss the photo on the site’s ‘Talk’ forum. Lots of people who are uncertain about the identity of the animal in the photo use this forum to figure it out – making my job as one of the researchers and moderators of WildCam much easier. Once consensus is reached on the identities of the animals in the photo, the picture is taken out of circulation and the information is added to a database for scientists to use in their research.

A herd of waterbuck grazes in front of a trail camera as one smiles for the camera.
A herd of waterbuck grazes in front of a trail camera as one smiles for the camera.

The immense power of citizen science data is valuable not only to the lion researchers in Gorongosa but to other scientists as well. Dr. Joyce Poole is an elephant biologist who is studying how the behavior of Gorongosa’s elephants has changed as a result of the war. She has set up her own camera traps to track crop-raiding elephants in a nearby village. She quickly ran into the too-much-data problem, saying, “The data have been really, really useful and interesting. But the amount of data is enormous… With baboons messing around the riverbank, 10 days can generate over 4,000 images on one camera.” Gorongosa researchers, like Poole, can easily filter out thousands of baboon photos and focus only on the ones she is most interested in – elephants. By crowdsourcing the job of looking through every photo, WildCam has saved scientists many hours of work, allowing them to access the data they need at the push of a button. Poole is considering adding her photos to WildCam so that citizen scientists can help her identify new individuals and gain more insights into their behavior and interactions with people.

One of Gorongosa’s massive elephants struts past a trail camera.
One of Gorongosa’s massive elephants struts past a trail camera.

And it’s not just research on lions and elephants that’s getting a boost from WildCam. Princeton University Professor Rob Pringle and his team of graduate students and post-docs study many species of herbivores in Gorongosa and how they impact the landscape. Using the power of WildCam, where volunteers identify 16 different species of large herbivores, Pringle’s group can more readily assess how these animals are distributed throughout the park, what other species they associate with, and how many male, female, and young are present in each group. Pringle requested that the question “Do you see horns?” be added to WildCam to help his team answer these very questions. Like many researchers working in the park, Pringle’s team hopes to understand how wildlife is recovering from the war, and how that is influencing the ecosystem is doing as a whole. “This kind of basic descriptive information is incredibly useful for answering all kinds of scientific and conservation questions, but it’s hard to come by,” Pringle said. “By harnessing the energy of citizen scientists, WildCam is generating a dataset that would take a lifetime for any one individual to assemble.”

A baby sable antelope checks out the camera as its mother continues on her way.
A baby sable antelope checks out the camera as its mother continues on her way.

Every once in a while, I take a break in my day to go back to the ‘Talk’ forum on WildCam. I find comfort in knowing that the community is there, not only diligently identifying animals (which they are doing with impressive speed and accuracy), but answering each others questions and marveling in the day’s finds together.

“I’m finding this so fascinating. It is a venture into unknown territory for me, and full of nice surprises…I am delighted that there is such a diversity of wildlife still. I’m enjoying seeing the Nyala and Sable and Bushpigs, and those leggy Yellow Baboons.” -@davidbygott (Zooniverse volunteer)

I am quickly realizing that citizen science projects like WildCam aren’t just about the efficiency of having thousands of people do a job that would be tedious for just a handful of researchers. It’s about connecting with like-minded volunteers who are working as a team to generate quality data. To see what I mean, head over to WildCam and take a stab at identifying that bushbuck. Or is it a reedbuck?

To learn more about the ongoing research and restoration of Gorongosa National Park, tune in to PBS on September 22, 29, and October 2 at 8/7c to watch the 6-part series “Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise,” (check local listings).

WildCam Cubs

Comments

  1. Nikki
    Connecticut, USA
    October 9, 2015, 8:16 am

    Just watched a Nature episode on CPTV all about gorongosa now to see it on here makes me smile… any pigmy chameleons on the web cams!!!?! Probably not but i sure am amazed by the insects in this area!!!

    • Bridget Conneely
      October 9, 2015, 9:26 am

      Glad you liked the show! Unfortunately there have not been any pygmy chameleons captured on trail cams but they sure are cute! I hope you have fun identifying animals on WildCam Gorongosa!