Oxford University helps take a "snapshot" of Serengeti life

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The University of Oxford has recently collaborated with the University of Minnesota to launch a scientific project to photograph and classify animals in the Serengeti national reserve.

‘Snapshot Serengeti’ is part of the Zooniverse project and offers users the opportunity to experience an ‘online safari’ using pictures of animals taken throughout the 5700 sq. miles park. Zooniverse is led by Oxford University and Adler Planetarium and allows people to interact with scientific projects online.

Zooniverse projects encourage people to get involved as online volunteers. Scientists involved in the Serengeti project are hoping that users will help to classify animals in the photographs to help identify the different animals found in the park.

Christopher Lintott, the director of Zooniverse, is a researcher at Oxford University and leads Citizen Science projects. He explained how he got involved in the project, telling Cherwell, “We played this game before in 2007 when we took millions of pictures of galaxies and put the images online. We realised that people were willing to give up their spare time to help researchers and we were then contacted by other researches of different projects. For Snapshot Serengeti, we teamed up with biologists largely from the US, and combined our software expertise with their data. Some of the images are amazing.”

The project has been very successful with 3.7 million animals classified and 70, 000 people visiting the site so far. The pictures are taken with a camera trap, which are remotely triggered cameras that allow photographs to be taken of shy or aggressive animals, which might be too dangerous or difficult to photograph in person.

Chris Lintott continued, “There are only 230 cameras to cover the whole area. One member of the team from the University of Minnesota, Ali Swanson, checks them every few days to ensure that grass doesn’t obstruct the view of the cameras. Now that so many people have got involved and there’s been so much enthusiasm for the project, we can justify using more cameras as we have the manpower from the public to continue classifying the data.”

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Students of Oxford University were receptive to the project – Rebecca Hannon of Balliol College commented, “This is a really interesting and different idea. Getting the public interested in online projects has worked well in lots of other areas of science too.”

Other current Zooniverse projects include classifying galaxies according to shapes using the Hubble telescope, and modelling the earth’s climates.