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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Cool Whale Shark Photo Identification Project

One reason we've learned in recent years that K and L Pods make trips down off the coast of California in the winter time is that individuals are relatively easy to ID. Whale watchers out of Monterey Bay, for instance, take photos of dorsal fins and saddle patches when they see a group of orcas, and if they don't match the local whales they recognize they can send the photos up to the Center for Whale Research, which keeps the catalog of Southern Residents. Even the untrained observer can quickly see the difference between and open and closed saddle patch:

The challenges of tracking individuals are much greater, however, with other species that don't have such easily discernible unique markings. I recently came across a website that has taken an innovative approach to helping researchers track whale sharks. EcoOcean maintains a whale shark photo identification website, where divers from all over the world can upload photos of whale sharks they see. Since it's a popular species divers search for world wide, they are well-photographed. Then, the online database matches the unique spot patterns on individuals to other known animals, and creates a list of sightings for each whale shark. Much like SETI, you can even donate your unused computer time to helping the database match photos by using SharkGrid.

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