Space-inspired whale shark study unravels constellations of the oceans

November 30, 2017

Whale shark

Wonders of the deep: Ecotourists have been helping scientists to understand whale sharks better (Pic Jess Leask)

Citizen science has combined with NASA ingenuity to reveal more secrets about one of the most awe-inspiring creatures in our oceans – whale sharks.

An epic 22 year-long international project involving Murdoch University research associate / ECOCEAN Lead Scientist Dr Brad Norman has amassed tourist photographs of almost 30,000 encounters to reveal where the enigmatic endangered fish congregate around the world.

An international research team, which included Dr Norman, modified an algorithm developed by NASA to recognise star patterns, applying it to the distinctive spots on the sides of whale sharks allowing the scientists to identify and track individuals.

This online photo database, called Wildbook for Whale Sharks, has identified 6,000 individuals across 54 countries, giving the scientists a rich data set to analyse and better understand the species.

As revealed in a new paper for the journal BioScience, the project has helped researchers identify 20 whale shark aggregation sites, an increase from 13 identified before the project began.

These hotspots include the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, the Atlantic coast of Mexico, Mozambique and the Philippines.

Observations of the whale shark population in these areas, and rarer sightings in others, suggests that illegal fishing and lack of conservation can impact the whale shark gatherings.

The project has also revealed:

  • That spot patterns on whale sharks are unique and long lasting, and provide a method of individual identification through photographs.
  • There is a strong male bias at the majority of sites, showing an overall 66 per cent male population globally.
  • Few individual whale sharks move between countries, mostly aggregating around the same hotspots from year to year.

Dr Norman, who was lead author on the study, said the information provided by citizen scientists through their photographs was vital for prioritising conservation areas for the species.

“This effort is helping us to uncover the mysteries of whale sharks and better understand their abundance, geographic range, behaviours, migration patterns and their favourite places on the planet,” said Dr Norman, who gained his Bachelor of Science, Masters and PhD qualifications from Murdoch University.

“Engaging citizen scientists in photo identification also helps us to understand how eco-tourism activities may affect the appearance and return rate of whale sharks.

“Perhaps there are ecotourism practices that are helping to ensure the whale sharks return that can be applied to other regions.

“A broader analysis of environmental variables in the popular sites can also inform the long-term impacts of climate change in the movements of whale sharks.”

Study co-author Associate Professor David Morgan, who has worked with Dr Norman for many years on whale sharks, said the citizen science had helped to raise the profile of the fish, making it an iconic species particularly in Western Australia.

“Decades-long datasets are invaluable to predicting trends and changes in populations of species, and the whale shark database will continue to be crucial to the conservation of the species for many years to come,” Professor Morgan said.

The BioScience paper can be viewed here.

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