Software Competition Helps Researchers Tell Right Whales Apart – By Their Head Lice

2016-02-16T18:51:34+00:00 February 16, 2016|
North Atlantic right whale. (Credit: NOAA)

(Click to enlarge) North Atlantic right whale. (Credit: NOAA)

There are fewer than 500 right whales in the North Atlantic, and telling these endangered animals apart using photographs taken from an aircraft flying 750 feet overhead is a huge challenge.

(From NOAA Fisheries Service/by Shelley Dawicki) — Even with the help of a catalog maintained by the New England Aquarium, it takes many hours to match the images taken on each flight to those in the catalog.

Christin Khan, a fishery biologist in the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC)’s Protected Species Branch, and colleagues in the NEFSC’s aerial survey group spend hundreds of hours each year flying in the NOAA Twin Otter on surveys in the Northeast, looking primarily for right whales. Depending on how many whales are sighted, dozens to hundreds of photographs can be taken on a typical flight lasting six hours.  

How do they do it?  North Atlantic right whales have distinctive patterns of rough growths known as callosities on their heads, many infested with light colored cyamids, or whale lice. Those patterns, much like human fingerprints, help identify one individual right whale from another. Khan wondered how she could develop software that would recognize the callosity patterns and free up time so she and her colleagues could focus on other right whale research needs and priorities.

“We have a very real problem and needed a solution,” Khan said of the idea, which she first began thinking about how to solve in the fall of 2013.

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