Space telescope technology used to study sharks

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The technology used in the Hubble space telescope is now being used to help study whale sharks and has allowed researchers to conclude that whale sharks are thriving in Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia.

Jason Holmberg, Brad Norman and Zaven Arzoumanian have published the results of such a study in the latest issue of the journal Ecological Applications.

The authors adapted pattern recognition software originally written for the Hubble space telescope to allow them to identify individual whale sharks by the white lines and spots along the flanks photographed or videotaped whilst swimming alongside the animals.

It is believed that the pattern of spots and stripes on the skins of whale sharks are unique to each individuals, in the manner of human fingerprints.

Using a pool of 5100 images as the database, the authors analysed 1603 images obtained by scientists and ecotourists from Ningaloo Reef (Ningaloo Reef is Australia s longest fringing reef and one of the most reliable locations to find whale sharks, with large numbers sighted each year between April and June and smaller numbers in the months of March and July) and then applied this data to mathematical models to study the population parameters of the whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef.

The authors found no evidence of a decline in the abundance or survival rates of whale sharks on the reef, but caution that ...this local baseline must be analyzed in the broader context of a migratory species. This study also demonstrated the viability of using whale shark ecotourism to generate a large volume of statistically significant data.

For more information, see the paper: Holmberg, J, B Norman and Z Arzoumanian (2008) Robust, comparable population metrics through collaborative photo-monitoring of whale sharks Rhincodon typus. Ecological Applications 18, pp. 222"233.