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By: Kira Krall
NASA and ECOCEAN partnered up almost a decade ago to help aid the study of the elusive whale shark. The star patterns that the Space Administration studied bears a remarkable resemblance to the spot patterns on whale sharks. So, with a few minor adjustments, that same algorithm that identified stars is now identifying whale sharks.
The process starts with scientists and members of the public submitting whale shark photos to whaleshark.org. The algorithm compares the uploaded photo to the existing individuals in the database. As of 2008, the spot pattern of 1,300 whale sharks had been logged using photos from 40 countries. If there’s a match, the user that submitted the photo gets information on where else the whale shark was found.
Traditional tracking methods can be expensive, time-consuming, and temporary. Researchers have to scour the seas for the highly migratory fish and hope that the $3500 satellite tag they’ve just placed on the shark doesn’t fall off before they get some data. It’s typical for satellite tags to last about one year before naturally coming loose from the animal’s skin. Even with the recent boom in whale shark research, we still don’t know very much about their life history like mating and pupping.
The worldwide connectedness of the whaleshark.org project means that researchers can be everywhere at once. Even a snorkeling tourist with no knowledge of scientific research can provide vital information with just a waterproof camera. The system was first tested in Australia’s Nigaloo Reef by Bradley Norman and was quickly adopted by whale shark researchers all over the world.
A similar algorithm has also been used by researchers at the University of Central Florida. Former grad student Carlos Anderson developed a program that analyzes the unique whisker patterns of an individual polar bear. According to National Geographic, this method could be used to track individuals of any species with unique patterns. Cheetahs, mola mola, and even trout are potential subjects for a pattern ID algorithm!
Read more from our National Geographic News source.