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Vacationers' Photos Help Scientists Track Whale Sharks

A whale shark.
A whale shark. (Image credit: Imperial College London)

Vacationers' photographs of whale sharks could help scientists track and learn more about the huge animals, which are often referred to as the world's largest fish.

While scuba diving, tourists to the Maldives and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean often snap pictures of the sharks. A study published recently in the journal Wildlife Research found that scientists could use 85 percent of these whale shark photographs published on social media sites like Flickr and YouTube to successfully identify individual sharks, according to a statement from Imperial College London.

Whale sharks migrate incredible distances and dive deep underwater, frustrating many efforts to study them, and making such additional data particularly useful. Previously, however, researchers had not thought of such publicly available photos as a reliable source of information, the release said.

"Globally, this outcome provides strong support for the scientific use of photographs taken by tourists for whale shark monitoring," said Imperial College researcher Tim Davies in the release. "Hopefully, this will give whale shark research around the world confidence in using this source of free data."

Like curious tourists, scientists also snap photographs of whale sharks. But researchers identify the sharks according to patterns of spots located behind the gills, which can function like fingerprints to pinpoint individuals. The patterns can then be scanned into a computer. Researchers were able to locate and analyze these unique marking in the amateur photos, the release noted.

Scientists conducted the study in the Maldives, where whale shark tourism provides a steady stream of photos from globetrotting tourists.

The photographs could help scientists learn more about the poorly understood life history of these sharks, which are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, one step above "endangered."

Reach Douglas Main at dmain@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @Douglas_Main. Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

Douglas Main
Douglas Main loves the weird and wonderful world of science, digging into amazing Planet Earth discoveries and wacky animal findings (from marsupials mating themselves to death to zombie worms to tear-drinking butterflies) for Live Science. Follow Doug on Google+.