Excerpt: Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world and can grow to more than 40 feet long and more than 65,000 pounds. Despite their massive size, they are harmless “filter feeders” that move slowly through tropical waters, scooping up plankton with gaping mouths. (A)lthough whale sharks are gentle and easy-to-see, they are also constantly on the move, making them difficult for scientists to follow. At the time, this meant only about 1% of tagged whale sharks were ever re-sighted.

“It was a highly inefficient process and impossible to do long term population predictions,” (Jason) Holmberg said. This left scientists with many questions about the species, such as their migration routes and life spans outside captivity, and no one had ever observed them mating or having their young. “Without this information, conservationists could not learn if human activity was impacting whale sharks, or devise strategies to protect them,” Holmberg said.

A better research strategy was needed, and Holmberg thought the pale yellow spots that covered the whale sharks’ bodies could be the key. The spots were configured in unique designs, he noticed, that might be used like fingerprints to distinguish one whale shark from another. These left-side flanks of the whale shark form the “tag” or unique fingerprint of spots used to identify each animal individually. Being an information architect engineer, Holmberg thought that if he could find a way to collect photos of these spot patterns, a computer program could analyze, recognize, and track them.

Source: From the Stars to the Seas: Pairing Citizen Science with NASA Technology for Whale Shark Conservation | CitizenSci