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December 18, 2012

Serengeti hartebeest and calf.

A hartebeest and her calf were caught at night by a Snapshot Serengeti camera.

Today's technology may be smart, but when it comes to recognizing subtle patterns, the human brain has got it all over computers.

That's why nonscientists around the globe are signing up in droves to help scientists identify animals of Africa's remote Serengeti Plain and star clusters in the even more remote Andromeda Galaxy.

Called Snapshot Serengeti and Project Andromeda, both web-based projects are spearheaded by University of Minnesota researchers. The goal is to get thousands of images generated by stationary cameras in the Serengeti and by the Hubble Space Telescope in front of the eyes of volunteers, who will classify any animals or star clusters (or their absence) in each image.

Anyone who wants to join either project can visit its website— or—take a brief tutorial, and then start viewing images and recording observations. Data from Snapshot Serengeti will help researchers understand the lives and interactions of elephants, lions, zebras, and other spectacular wildlife, while the Andromeda Project observations will give astronomers a better idea of how spiral galaxies like Andromeda and our Milky Way evolved.

Zooniverse-al appeal

Both projects are part of Zooniverse, a portal where anyone can get involved in a wide range of citizen science projects. It is the brainchild of U researcher Lucy Fortson, an associate professor of physics, and colleagues at Oxford University.

Andromeda GalaxyThe Andromeda Galaxy is being thoroughly scrutinized by citizen scientists.

"We have a data deluge these days," says Fortson. "We have thermometers in oceans, earthquake sensors, and so on, all over the globe, and we don't have the capacity to analyze it. How do we grapple with [classifying] as much data as possible with all of it pouring in?"

The response has been tremendous. In the week following its December 5 launch, the Andromeda Project logged almost 750,000 classifications (a classification is when one person reports on one image). And in the first 48 hours after its December 11 launch, Snapshot Serengeti has had more than 2.5 million classifications; the number has now topped 4 million.

"The combination of launches has given us the most intense period of activity in Zooniverse ever," notes Fortson.

Tales from the field

In Project Andromeda, volunteers get a tour of the sights in the Milky Way's closest large neighbor, 2.4 million light-years away. They look for star clusters, most of which are the "open" variety, comprising hundreds to millions of stars all born in the same cloud of gas at about the same time and traveling through space in the same direction. Their shared origin makes them good tools for studying how stars form and evolve, and for tracking the major chapters in the history of galaxies.

Best-laid plans

Elephants seem to be fond of messing with cameras. "We have great photos of a trunk coming in close, followed by a picture of the sky," says Snapshot Serengeti researcher Ali Swanson.

Snapshot Serengeti is largely the work of Ali Swanson and Margaret Kosmala, graduate students of ecology professor Craig Packer. Swanson placed 225 heat- and motion-activated cameras at strategic locations around a 1,000-square-kilometer area of Tanzania's Serengeti National Park. Swanson and Margaret Kosmala worked together with Zooniverse to design the project.

"This camera survey gives us a chance to ask complex questions about how carnivores interact with each other and about predator-prey relationships that we couldn't ask otherwise because they range over such a large area," Swanson says.

As a hypothetical example of how it could work, suppose leopards were snapped only by cameras surrounded by certain types of vegetation, such as dense woods, and hyenas only turned up in open areas.

"It would help us understand how habitat features drive community dynamics," she says. "It can give us more information about what natural areas need. The better the information, the better the management decisions that can ultimately be made.

"Also, it's cool to be able to share the science and get the general public involved in research. Science seems very distant and abstract to some. It's exciting to share the scientific questions we're asking."

Update 12/27/12: The Andromeda Project was so successful, it has suspended its call for volunteers to classify objects in the galaxy. Organizers expect to have more images in a few months, so keep monitoring the website. For more information, see the project blog at

Tags: College of Biological Sciences, College of Science and Engineering

Take a gander at these superb Snapshot Serengeti photos:

lion and cub

nocturnal buffalo fight


cheetah and cubs


hartebeest and calf at night

Warthog and oxpeckers

Zebras at sunset

See images of the Andromeda Galaxy's double nucleus, a globular star cluster, and others from Project Andromeda.

Related Links

College of Science and Engineering

School of Physics and Astronomy

Lucy Fortson

College of Biological Sciences

Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior

Lion Research Center

Craig Packer