Whale Shark Conservation Crowdsourcing
February 9, 2013

Amateur Photographers, Tourists Can Help With Whale Shark Conservation

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

In a new variety of crowdsourcing, a researcher from Imperial College London is using vacation snapshots to track the movement of whale sharks. This study, published in the journal Wildlife Research, is the first to show that publicly sourced photographs are suited to conservation efforts.

During scuba diving and snorkeling expeditions in the Maldives, tourists frequently take underwater pictures of the whale shark — the world's largest fish. Until now, the value of amateur snapshots has never been measured, although conservationists have long hoped to use this photographic resource to help them trace the sharks´ life history, relationships and geographic distribution.

To examine the reliability of publicly sourced photographs, Tim Davies of Imperial College London's Department of Life science, and his colleagues compared results using tourist photos with results based on surveys by marine researchers who were specifically tracking the animals.

For a clear, verifiable identification, any photograph must capture the distinctive pattern of spots located directly behind the gills. Much like a tiger's stripes, this pattern of spots is unique, creating a "fingerprint" which can be scanned with a computer program to tell the individual animals apart.

The team examined hundreds of amateur photographs taken by the public. Many of these were downloaded from image-sharing sites like Flickr and YouTube. In 85 percent of the pictures, individual whale sharks could be identified. This is surprisingly close to the 100 percent identification possible in researchers' pictures.

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.”

Though whale sharks are thought to be rare, their conservation status remains uncertain. The results of this study have allowed the team to measure the populations of whale sharks in the region. They estimate these numbers have not declined in recent years.

Davies added: “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.”

For those heading to the Maldives, as well as to other regions, you can assist researchers in monitoring whale shark populations by uploading your shark photos to the ECOCEAN whale shark identification library website. For more information on Maldivian whale sharks, visit the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program website.