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International whale shark research program uses NASA algorithm to identify, track animals

(ABC News)– An international research project tracking whale sharks is being praised as a unique collaboration using ‘citizen science’ and NASA technology.

The project relied on people sending in photos, taken over many years in locations around the world, which were then analysed against other pictures.

Lead author and Murdoch University Associate Doctor Bradley Norman said the information gained helped track the whale sharks.

“A great example of citizen science where members of the public can play a really positive and active role in monitoring our wildlife, in this case, whale sharks,” he said.

The researchers used a modified version of a NASA algorithm developed to recognise star patterns to help identify the animals.

The technology allowed a scan of a photo to be matched with a previous photo.Dr Norman said the white spot patterns over dark blue-grey are not unlike stars in the night sky.

“They do look like stars, it’s white spots against a dark background and they’re quite beautiful,” he said.

“That pattern is like a fingerprint, it’s unique to each individual. So we’re actually tagging the whale sharks without touching them.

“We use the photo of the shark that I swam with or somebody swam with today and we compare that photo — now we’ve got thousands of photos in the photo ID library to see whether it’s a new shark or it’s one that’s been seen yesterday, last year or 10 years ago.

“This was sort of initiated at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia but it’s been broadly taken up by researchers around the world and encouraging members of the public who might be swimming with whale sharks in Mozambique or Mexico or the Philippines to actually take that photo, submit it to an online database and then we’ll do the work to analyse it up and come up with the answers.”

Project tracking whale shark movements

Dr Norman, who is also the founder of the non-profit ECOCEAN organisation, said that whale sharks were not identified in scientific terms until the 19th Century, and that up until the 1980s, the number of recorded sightings was in the hundreds.

This is despite their long life span — it’s estimated that they can live for more than 100 years.The project has helped determine that the spot patterns themselves are long-lasting.

The researchers have also been able to identify several previously unknown ‘aggregation sites’ around the world, with some of the sharks moving over larger areas, and between countries.

They also found that female whale sharks appear to be outnumbered, with an estimate that there are two male whale sharks for every female.

Dr Norman said the aim of the research is to focus on conservation.

“It’s bringing space technology down to earth and helping an endangered species.

“Western Australia’s official marine emblem but it’s also an endangered species, so it’s really important that we collect as much information on this species as possible to help with their long term conservation.

“There’s been a bit of talk about what’s the collective term for whale sharks and it seems to make perfect sense to call them constellations.”

Dr Norman said the next challenge was to find the breeding grounds of the whale sharks.People can contribute to the online database via the website Wildbook for Whale Sharks.

The findings have been published in the BioScience journal, which has made the report freely available online.

Source:: ABC News

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