Researching the behaviour of agamid lizards in the Serengeti

agamid lizard
Photo by Steven Allain

Some of you may be aware of the blog I wrote back in 2015 about a project that I was just starting up looking at the activity and behaviour of agamid lizards in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania using camera trap images. The data had been originally collected by the Snapshot Serengeti Project – a long-term monitoring project using hundreds of camera traps in the Serengeti National Park, aiming to provide a window into the dynamics of Africa’s most elusive wildlife species. Thankfully the camera traps don’t only capture mammals but also birds and more interestingly – reptiles!

With so much data to sort through, the team required the help of citizen scientists, to help identify which species were active in each trapping event. As I was about to visit Tanzania when I stumbled across the project, I decided to get involved and give it a shot! I’ve got to say it really helped with my identification of mammals when in the African bush – especially for someone who isn’t usually interested in them. Whilst there I did of course carry out some research and surveys, it wasn’t all fun on safaris. Apart from the mammals in the camera trap photos – I also noticed that there were certain areas where you would see reptiles. As the events in which each citizen scientist must categorise are randomised, it wasn’t very often that these came around but I could still recognise the areas where I’d previously seen agamids and other reptiles.

These areas where I’d previously seen the reptiles were kopjes, erupting from the Serengeti’s landscape like hills of gold. These of course where popular with the reptiles of the area as they provided the best places to bask – they also contained a number of crevices that are known to be home to reptiles species such as the Mwanza flat-headed rock agama (Agama mwanzae). After getting in touch with the team who have been working on the project since its inception – I found out that the data is open access and anyone who is willing (or perhaps crazy enough) to sit through and analyse a few million photos is welcome to! This is one of the reasons why progress has been slow and why it’s taken the best part of four years to get to a point where I’m finally in a position to start analysing data.

agamid lizard
Photo by Steven Allain.

One of the many agama’s enjoying its basking and viewing vantage point of this kopje.

The original project identified 131 events where reptiles were seen – I’m not sure if the citizen scientists we’re as savvy as me at spotting lizards but I’ve been able to identify over 730 separate occasions where reptiles have been captured by the cameras. The original 131 laid the foundations of this helping to identify which times of day and which locations would likely yield the best chances of observing reptiles. Most of those 730-odd events contain A. mwanzae although there are a few other reptile species that I’m still trying to identify with my small team of dedicated friends who have helped support me as I sifted through what seemed like an infinite number of photos.

Now we have a large dataset, there are many questions we’d like to answer, these include when do most of the reptiles bask and to investigate if there is any difference between the sexes. The analysis will start soon and hopefully we’ll have some meaningful results that will see the work published in a reputable journal. For now, wish us luck and keep an eye out.

Steven Allain
About Steven Allain 10 Articles
Steve is a zoology graduate from Anglia Ruskin, Cambridge. He is the current chairman of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Amphibian & Reptile Group (CPARG) and helps to organise and coordinate a number of amphibian and reptile surveys around the county to map the distribution of amphibians within Cambridgeshire. Steve has a blog and is an intern for IUCN SSC Amphibian Red List Authority since last summer. He has recently joined the SAVE THE FROGS! Task Force and is currently carrying out an amphibian based research project in Malaysia. Check out Steve on Twitter (@stevoallain) and find more of his work on ResearchGate.

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