Earlier this month, I went to my favorite conference of the year: the one for the Association for Biology Laboratory Education. If you don’t know about it, check it out. Each conference follows a workshop format, so you don’t sit and listen to people drone on about what they do. You actually get to try the lab activities yourself and see if they’ll work for your own class.
At one of the workshops I attended at this year’s conference, I learned about a great resource from HHMI BioInteractive. (Loyal readers of this site may recall that I previously wrote about their wonderful rock pocket mouse evolution video.) The focus of the workshop was the resources posted at HHMI BioInteractive: Gorongosa National Park. This park, in Mozambique, was all but destroyed in that country’s civil war, but it is now rebuilding.
Before we came to the workshop, we watched a video called The Guide; it was a good introduction to the park’s history and to a young Mozambican who wants to be a guide there. After a brief discussion in the workshop, we launched WildCam Gorongosa, “an online citizen science platform.” We launched the WildCam and clicked “Get Started!” After a brief set of instructions, we started counting and identifying the animals photographed in camera traps. The site shows you one photo at a time, and you click the names of any animals you see, how many you see, and what they are doing in the photos. Of course, few people are experts on Africa’s wildlife, so you might not know your duiker from your eland. Not to worry, they provide a guide to the common animals, and they encourage you to take your best shot even if you don’t know what you are looking at. Lots of people look at each photo, and experts weigh in on those for which citizen scientists cannot agree. So there’s no real risk of messing up someone’s Important Science.
As we clicked through the pictures, we were encouraged to start thinking about questions we might ask about wildlife at Gorongosa. Each photo includes a button that shows information about the image: the camera’s identifier, the date the image was snapped, the season, the time (day/night), the distance to the nearest human settlement, the distance from water, and the biome where the camera is located. (Other resources on the site include an interactive map in which you can see the camera locations, the park’s major landscape features, the nearby villages, and so on.) It doesn’t take long before you start wondering: Do baboons always hang around in groups? How can duikers and oribi coexist when they seem to have such similar niches?
After refining our questions and framing hypotheses that we could actually test using the trail cam data, we were ready to get some answers. The data from more than 40,000 images are compiled in a database that you can access by going to the WildCam Lab. Click “Explorer.” You’ll get a brief introduction to the site, then you can download all the data or filter the dataset by species, habitat, season, time of day, date, distance to humans, and/or distance to water. Once you figure out what you want, you can download the data as an Excel spreadsheet and analyze them to your heart’s content.
This blog post is highlighting just a part of the actual activity, which is spelled out in detail at the HHMI site — complete with educator materials, a student worksheet, and even a tutorial that shows students how to use pivot tables in Excel. And that activity only scratches the surface of what’s available at HHMI’s Gorongosa site. I haven’t looked at most of these materials myself yet, but just browsing through the resources, I see an animation of Gorongosa’s water cycle, a food web activity, a biodiversity activity, a human impacts activity, a biomes activity, an ecological pyramid activity, a lion-tracking activity, and so on. It’s really amazing.
I am planning to use the WildCam material in my nonmajors biology lab this fall, as a replacement for our rather silly animal behavior lab (sorry, isopods!). The activities at the Gorongosa site should get students to think about real data and engage in meaningful science, which are goals of all my nonmajors biology labs. They should also allow students to analyze animals (and plants) in their native habitats, doing what they do when no one is looking. For my students, it will be a window into the forests and savannas of southeast Africa from the comfort of our second-floor biology lab.
Wish me luck! In the meantime, big thanks are due to ABLE for sponsoring the workshop and to HHMI for making such high-quality materials.