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NASA Tool Helps Track Whale Sharks, Polar Bears

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 25, 2008

Photos of giant whale sharks snapped by vacationing scuba divers and snorkelers are helping scientists track the elusive marine creatures across the oceans.

And the same technique may soon also help researchers track polar bears in Canada, giant Eurasian trout in Mongolia, and ocean sunfish in the Galápagos Islands.

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 participatory tracking technique is already lending new insight into the biology of whale sharks, according to Brad Norman, a research scientist from Murdoch University in Perth, Australia.

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.

And the global database of whale shark pictures indicates that some of the giant fish migrate between Mexico, Honduras, and Belize.

"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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