Hubble Space Telescope computer software developed by astrophysicists to locate stars and galaxies in the night sky could help save the whale shark - whose spotted skin is like a starry sky – from extinction, according to new research published in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology.
Together with Australian marine biologist Brad Norman and JAVA programmer and software specialist Jason Holmberg, astrophysicist Zaven Arzoumanian of the Universities Space Research Association discovered that a pattern-matching algorithm developed by astronomers to locate celestial objects could be used to identify individual whale sharks.
Whale sharks' spots are similar to bright stars in the night sky, allowing the trio of researchers to adapt the star pattern recognition technique to the characteristic markings found on the largest fish in the sea. “This is an example of space technology finding an important application here on Earth,” says Arzoumanian.
Depending on funding, the success of the program could see the technology adapted for other forms of wildlife -- all that is needed is for the species to have distinctive marks on its hide.
According to Arzoumanian: “The contrast of white whale shark spots
on darker skin is well suited to a machine vision technique known as
'blob extraction,’ which measures the locations and dimensions of pixel
groups of a single color. The spatial relationships between these
groups, represented by a set of x and y coordinates, form the basis for
a unique identifier for each shark.”
In the same way that individual whales can be identified by the shape and markings on their flukes, photographic identification of individual whale sharks through their spot pattern “fingerprints,” as well as other markers, has long been possible. However, the full potential of photographic identification has rarely been exploited because of the unmanageable task of making visual identification in
large data sets, so using pattern-matching to automate the process is a major advance.
Once photographed, the technique means a whale shark has been “virtually tagged.” According to Norman: “Identifying individuals repeatedly through photography can also inform biological observations such as age of maturity, growth rate and foraging ecology.”
This system enables the researchers to use photographs taken by
underwater divers and posted to an online library at www.whaleshark.org
to monitor the movements and habits of the shark.
When a new shark is discovered and its photo is uploaded to the Web site, it is given a number. When it is photographed again, a "resight" note appears on the Web site. This way, in addition to the conservation information it supplies researchers, individual photographers can track the movements of "their" sharks.
Norman won the Rolex Award for enterprise last year, and is using the prize to take his project to more than 20 locations worldwide. Current, or planned locations for whale spotting centers include Thailand, Taiwan, the Seychelles, the Maldives, the Galapagos, Indonesia, India, the Red Sea and along the east coast of Africa.
Before this technology, researchers had no definite way to track the whale shark. Now, with thousands of individual photo submissions from over 30 countries around the world Norman believes the whale shark is "a flagship species for marine conservation... we raise a lot of public awareness."
Most exciting is where some of the photos come from. "We have found photos from Web sites like Facebook," Norman said. Community sites such as those provide the conservationists with a powerful tool to improve public awareness for their work.
Whale sharks are listed as “vulnerable to extinction” by the World
Conservation Union . Up to 20 meters long, the whale shark is the
world's largest fish and lives mainly in the warm water belt north and
south of the equator. As filter feeders, whale sharks pose no danger to
humans. This filter-feeding shark
which feeds on prey ranging from plankton to small fish and squid and
occurs in both oceanic and coastal regions. It is normally encountered
close to the surface either singly, or occasionally in aggregations of
up to hundreds of individuals.
Fisheries exist (or have existed) for whale sharks in Taiwan, the Philippines and India. High prices are paid in Taiwan for the meat while the fins are also valuable and exploitation can be expected to increase.
Posted by Casey Kazan. Image: Brad Norman.
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