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Written by DIVE Magazine Friday, 01 February 2013 16:55
Scientists call for holiday dive snaps of whale sharks.
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Researchers at Imperial College in London decided to check whether random holiday snaps can be successfully used to identify whale sharks as part of their on-going research project.
Conservationists use photographs taken by research students to help them trace the sharks’ life history, relationships and geographic distribution. The study was to see if amatuer snaps could be just as useful.
Tim Davies of Imperial, the lead author of a study published in Wildlife Research, has established that amatuer photographs are useable in research. He and his team did this by comparing results using tourist images with results based on surveys by marine researchers specifically aiming to track the sharks.
In order for a shark to be clearly identified, any photograph must capture the distinctive pattern of spots located directly behind the gills. This unique marking serves as a ‘fingerprint’, which can then be scanned with a computer programme to tell the animals apart.
The study looked at hundreds of images taken by the public, of which many were downloaded from image-sharing websites such as Flickr and YouTube. Individual whale sharks could be successfully identified in 85 per cent of cases, surprisingly close to the 100 per cent identification possible in photographs taken by researchers.
Davies said: 'Globally, this outcome provides strong support for the scientific use of photographs taken by tourists for whale shark monitoring. Hopefully, this will give whale shark research around the world confidence in using this source of free data. In the Maldives in particular, where whale shark tourism is well established and very useful for collecting data from throughout the archipelago, our results suggest that whale shark monitoring effort should be focused on collecting tourist photographs.'
The conservation status of the whale shark has long remained uncertain. This study allowed the team to measure the populations in the Maldives, which they estimate have not declined in recent years. Davies said: 'Hopefully, as more data come in from tourists over the years and from further across the archipelago, we will be able to build up our understanding of the Maldives population and monitor its status closely.'
Divers heading to the Maldives, as well as to other regions, can assist researchers in monitoring whale shark populations by uploading their shark photos to the ECOCEAN whale shark identification library website (www.whaleshark.org). For more information on Maldivian whale shark visit the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme website (http://maldiveswhalesharkresearch.org).