for National Geographic News
Photos of giant whale sharks snapped by vacationing scuba divers and snorkelers are helping scientists track the elusive marine creatures across the oceans.
Biologists have adapted a complex algorithm developed by scientists working for NASA. The original algorithm mapped stars. The new one analyzes photos of whale sharks, identifying each animal's unique pattern of white spots. The program determines if a particular shark has been seen before by other database users.
The tourist-collected tracking information is helping researchers learn more about where and when the fish migrate and their rate of return to particular areas, Norman said.
For example, at Ningaloo Marine Park in Western Australia, where the tracking technique was first tested, researchers found some sharks remain near the reef for up to three months.
"We can use these data to highlight the need for international agreements to protect this threatened species," said Norman, who is a National Geographic Society emerging explorer, as well as the recipient of funding from the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.
(National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)
Tracking Whales and Stars
Whale sharks are the world's largest living fish species, growing more than 40 feet (12 meters) long. They are listed as vulnerable to extinction by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), though little is known about their basic biology, ecology, breeding and migration patterns, and worldwide population size.
In 2000, Norman formed ECOCEAN, a nonprofit marine conservation organization based in Perth, to develop the participatory tracking system to facilitate whale shark studies.
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