In an international research programme, the spots on whale sharks are being used to identify and track individual whale sharks worldwide, thanks to an algorithm developed by NASA that was originally used to track star patterns.
An algorithm developed by NASA to study star patterns in the night skies is being used to track whale sharks in the oceans in a bid to learn more about them.
It relies on citizen science: Divers who encounter whale sharks when diving would send in photos of the animals to the Wildbook for Whale Sharks website. The algorithm then tries to match the whale shark in the submitted footage with previously submitted photos in the database, compiled over the years.
Whether or not a match is found, the new image will be added in the database for future reference.
This system, called the Wildbook for Whale Sharks, is a visual database of whale shark encounters and individually catalogued whale sharks.
How does the match take place?
Well, according to its website: "The Wildbook uses photographs of the skin patterning behind the gills of each shark, and any scars, to distinguish between individual animals. Cutting-edge software supports rapid identification using pattern recognition and photo management tools."
“That pattern is like a fingerprint, it’s unique to each individual, so we’re actually tagging the whale sharks without touching them,” said Bradley Norman, a marine conservation biologist. He is the lead author of a paper in the 29th November issue of the BioScience journal, which focused on how the algorithm has been used to track whale sharks all these years.
To date, almost 30,000 whale shark encounter reports from 1992 to 2014 have been recorded, with more than 6,000 individuals identified from 54 countries.