June 15, 2013 — Images snapped by snorkeling vacationers are now helping scientists forward whale shark conservation by allowing them to track the movements of these endangered giants. A new study, led by Tim Davies of Imperial College London's Department of Life Sciences, shows publicly available photographs -- a nearly cost-free source of data -- are almost as useful for tracking whale sharks as are those taken by professional biologists. The study is published in the journal Wildlife Research.
Tourists vacationing in the Maldives, for example, often take pictures of whale shark, renowned as the world's biggest fish, because these vast creatures are slow moving and pose no threat to humans. Conservationists have wanted to use such photos, but there has been no formal assessment of how accurate studies based on their use might be. To evaluate this question, Davies and his team compared the results of their attempt, using publicly available tourist images, to track the sharks with results based on surveys by marine researchers.
The study looked at hundreds of images taken by the public, of which many were downloaded from image-sharing websites such as Flickr and YouTube. Individual whale sharks could be correctly identified about 85 percent of the time, which is nearly as good as the 100 percent rate with photographs taken by professional researchers. These photos, however, do not require the expense of seeking out elusive animals, underwater, in the often remote locales where they reside.
Speaking about the implications of these results for whale shark conservation, Davies said: "Globally, this outcome provides strong support for the scientific use of photographs taken by tourists for whale shark monitoring. Hopefully, this will give whale shark research around the world confidence in using this source of free data. In the Maldives in particular, where whale shark tourism is well established and very useful for collecting data from throughout the archipelago, our results suggest that whale shark monitoring effort should be focused on collecting tourist photographs."
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