NASA Algorithm Helping Track Whale Sharks

A whale shark’s exquisite markings are similar to a galaxy's constellations.

The project mainly relied upon the public sending in their photos, which had been taken over a number of years all over the world to properly analyse and compare with previous images.

The researchers then used one of NASA’s algorithms, one used to recognise star patterns, modified it, and used it to recognise individual whale sharks. This helped the researchers pinpoint the location of certain animals, using the scanned public photos.

Image: Brad Norman, photographing whale sharks

National Geographic explorer and Murdoch University Associate Doctor Bradley Norman explained that a whale shark’s star-like pattern is not dissimilar to that of star patterns in the sky.

“It was really important to determine individual whale sharks, a lot of my work is based around photo identification and the natural patterning of spots on their skin, which is like a fingerprint,” he told National Geographic.

“Over the years we’ve continued the photo id program and in fact it involved many members of the public in a citizen science program.”

This method of tracker-less tracking was tested at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia first by Norman but was swiftly picked up by researchers all over the world. Those swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines, Mozambique or Mexico were encouraged to take photos and upload them to the online database for analysing.

Up until the 19th-century whale sharks had not been properly identified, and only a few hundred were reported, despite their incredibly long lifespan (up to 100 years). The project has helped researchers track the animals across oceans and identify new aggregation sites. The research revealed that there are more male than female whale sharks and that some whale sharks even move between countries.

Image: Brad Norman, up close and personal with Ningaloo's whale sharks. 

However the aim of the project was to find ways to better conserve the sharks.

“It’s really important we maintain the health of its habitat, because the biggest fish in the sea is also the friendliest and a great ambassador for our oceans,” Norman explains.

To contribute your photos to the online database visit the ‘Wildbook for Whale Sharks’ website or read more about Brad's work here.

Lead Image: Rob Harcourt, Marine Images.

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