Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How Your Vacation Photos Could Help Save the Freaking Whale Shark

Prior to the 1980s, there were fewer than 350 confirmed sightings of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) worldwide. But by next year, that annoying girl on your Facebook feed who seems to do nothing but go on vacation will probably have a whole album full of whale shark pics. And that’s just what might save the beautiful bastards from extinction.

Whale sharks are thought to be quite rare, but scientists have long struggled to estimate their true numbers. Individual animals can be identified through unique markings behind each gill and an inventory of scars, but the fact that the creatures seem to migrate thousands of miles over the course of a year makes it difficult to keep pace with them. (Help us help you, whale sharks.) They are officially listed as facing a high risk of extinction in the wild, where they are vulnerable to collisions with boats and lovers of shark fin soup.

Fortunately, tourists love to take pictures of sea monsters. It probably helps that the world’s largest fish enjoys warm waters, slow surface swimming, and a diet that looks nothing like a human being. And while they react when touched, whale sharks usually pay little mind to swimmers and divers, likely because their massive size—they’re about the length of a school bus and weigh 20 tons—means they fail to see us as a threat. (Hubris: not just for humans.) This matter-of-factness also means any old tourist with a decent point-and-click can capture clear enough images to use for identification.

Thanks to a study by Tim Davies, a researcher at Imperial College London, scientists are now confident these amateur images can be used to identify the whereabouts of individual whale sharks on a global scale. Utilizing pattern recognition software and photo management tools, crowd-sourced pics from sites like Flickr were successfully used to obtain IDs in 85 percent of cases. The ability to recognize and log sightings of individual whale sharks is huge because it allows scientists in, say, Australia to keep tabs on animals that appear locally for a only a few weeks a year. (Over the course of 36 months, one whale shark took a world tour of over 8,000 miles.) Checking positive IDs against other images also gives us a more accurate representation of just how many of these filter-feeding crazies are really out there. Plus, flipping through the ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library is like a marine biologist’s version of Facebook. (You’ve gotta see how much weight #716AC put on this winter!)

Slate -
12 Feb 2013
J Bittel

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