Hubble technology, Flickr and YouTube help save endangered species

Hubble space technology and the global networking power of the Internet is being put to good use in wildlife conservation by giving researchers a clearer understanding of the status of the endangered whale shark.

A group of researchers, including Australian marine scientist, Brad Norman; NASA astrophysicist, Zaven Arzoumanian; and computer expert, Jason Holmberg have devised a creative use for a mathematical formula used by Hubble space telescope scientists to recognise star patterns -- they have adapted the formula to identify the unique spot patterns on whale sharks. With this formula, the researchers can use photographs taken by underwater divers and posted to an online library at www.whaleshark.org to monitor the movements and habits of the whale shark.

When a new shark is discovered and its photo is uploaded to the Web site, it is given a number. When it is photographed again, a "resight" note appears on the Web site. This way, in addition to the conservation information it supplies researchers, individual photographers can track the movements of "their" sharks.

Norman won the Rolex Award for enterprise last year, and is using the prize to take his project to more than 20 locations worldwide. Current, or planned locations for whale spotting centres include Thailand, Taiwan, the Seychelles, the Maldives, the Galapagos, Indonesia, India, the Red Sea and along the east coast of Africa.

Before this technology, researchers had no definite way to track the whale shark. Now, with thousands of individual photo submissions from over 30 countries around the world Norman believes the whale shark is "a flagship species for marine conservation... we raise a lot of public awareness."

Most exciting is where some of the photos come from. "We have found photos from Web sites like Facebook," Norman said. Community sites such as those provide the conservationists with a powerful tool to improve public awareness for their work.

The age of the photos submitted aren't a barrier for this technology either, with photos from 10 or 20 years ago having been successfully submitted to the Web site. Norman believes the project is a true case of citizen science where "members of the general public, regardless of age can contribute."

In addition to the helpful online community and the mathematical formula, researchers are using two other technologies to monitor the whale shark. A stereo camera system allows the team to monitor the growth rate of the sharks, and a new wildlife monitor developed by Rory Wilson tracks the shark's speed, direction, heart rate, heat loss, feeding, diving, energy expenditure and other actions.

This continued research has been instrumental in highlighting the vulnerability of the whale shark to the international community. Whale shark hunting has now been outlawed in the Philippines, India and Taiwan, and the success of the photo library and Web site is the first time conservation data has been collected from wildlife enthusiasts.

Depending on funding, the success of the program could see the technology adapted for other forms of wildlife -- all that is needed is for the species to have distinctive marks on its hide.

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Matthew Sainsbury
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