Whale tails key to conservation

Andrea Francolini

HUMPBACK whale tails are as unique as fingerprints.

But being able to match photos of the tails, or flukes, to records of sightings has been a slow and laborious process.

Now new software technology, developed by Southern Cross University in Lismore, will make identifying whales faster and easier.

And it’s hoped this will result in the improved management and conservation of humpback whales, director of the university’s Marine Ecology Research Centre, Professor Peter Harrison, said.

Researchers have been collecting hundreds and sometimes thousands of fluke photographs to identify individual humpback whales over many years, research fellow Dr Daniel Burns said.

“This is a valuable collection of data, but it has been difficult to compare images within different catalogues as the number of images has grown,” he said.

For the past four years he and Professor Harrison, and Dr Eric Kniest from the University of Newcastle, have been working on what they call the ‘Fluke Matcher’.

The program uses various characteristics of humpback whale flukes, including black and white pigmentation distribution; angles and distance describing the shape of the fluke; and the location of distinctive features such as spots, lines and areas of damage, to make an ID.

“We believe the Fluke Master will allow researchers globally to make faster and better estimates of abundance, migration patterns, interchange rates and calving and mortality rates,” Dr Burns said. “It’s not completely CSI, but it (re-ranks) the entire database to the most likely match after you click on different identifying factors.”

Since the software was released to the international research committee three days ago, enthusiastic emails have flooded in from around the world.

Dr Burns said the collaborative aspect of whale identification was particularly important for improving the understanding of whales’ movements between their feeding grounds in Antarctica and their breeding grounds in tropical and subtropical waters.

From this information researchers would be able to determine the relationship between the endangered Oceania population and the faster-recovering east Australian population.

This would improve the accuracy of pre-whaling population estimates and recovery assessments, Dr Burns said.

“This revolutionary tool will enable a much more efficient and collaborative use of data that is collected from around the world,” he said.

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