The Loh Down On Science

Tourists snorkel with sharks, for science

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Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish.

This just in—scientists want your vacation photos!

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science

Saying well, at least certain types of vacation photos. 

Whale sharks are the largest fish, reaching up to 40 feet long. These leviathans are also endangered, so researchers want to count them. But who has the time?

Enter ecologists from Imperial College London.  They were interested in the Maldives, tropical islands in the Indian Ocean.  They knew snorkelers there love to photograph whale sharks—and their fishy snapshots often go online, on Flickr or Youtube.  Hey!  Why not use those public photos to keep track of the big beasts?

So the researchers studied hundreds of tourist photos. A whale shark has no fingerprints, but it does have a unique pattern of white spots behind the gills. If a picture shows the spots, then a computer scan can tell individuals apart. The British ecologists reported that in 85 percent of the vacation snapshots, the pattern was in the picture.

Which means those sharks can be counted! 

Snorkelers in thong swimsuits, not so much.

 

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC Pasadena, California. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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