Secret Life of the Serengeti

When scientists wanted to know how the animals in the Serengeti get along, they decided to catch them on hidden camera!

Dr. Craig Packer, founder of the Serengeti Lion Project, and one of his graduate students, Ali Swanson, used camera traps to try to understand how so many species were able to coexist with lions, which are, Packer explains, “pretty nasty to all the other carnivores.” The hidden cameras captured a short sequence of photos when triggered by motion, creating a sort of who’s who at the watering hole.


In 2010, Swanson created a grid of 225 camera traps so that she could see how “different carnivores managed to avoid each other.” But she was quickly overwhelmed by the large number of photos each month. So she asked for help from citizen scientists! Teaming with Zooniverse, Swanson asked for help from laypeople to identify the animals photographed by the camera traps. They called the project Snapshot Serengeti.

A cheetah with cubs

From 2010 to 2013, field assistants visited the camera traps, replacing batteries and swapping out memory cards. They put the photos on Zooniverse where volunteers viewed the photos at random. The volunteers could view as many photos as they wanted, and their classifications were recorded.

A topi

And how did the citizens perform? “It turns out that, collectively, citizen scientists are extremely good in correctly identifying the species in these photos," says Packer. "Compared to the judgments of a panel of experts who have viewed a selection of 4,400 photos, the Snapshot volunteers were correct about 97 percent of the time!”

A herd of buffalo

In all, 32,935 registered volunteers (and almost as many unregistered users) classified 1.54 million photographic sequences. With numbers that large, Packer says it would have taken scientists months or years to finish what took citizens a couple of days.

A ground hornbill 

But what was the draw for the volunteers? Not only did they have a front row seat on a safari from their living room, but there was an element of discovery in looking through the photos. “Nothing, nothing, wildebeest, nothing, wildebeest, nothing, nothing, then LEOPARD!! It’s like hitting the jackpot!” Packer says.


These observations have opened up a world of information for scientists. “We’ve seen a lot of interactions between species that I doubt anyone has ever observed before, like bat-eared foxes chasing off an aardwolf, and topi saying hello to warthog.” 

High five, everyone!

A group of lionesses

The interview with Dr. Craig Packer was conducted by Tess Vincent. All images courtesy Snapshot Serengeti.