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NGSS: Core Idea: LS3.B

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 2

TEKS: 6.12F, 7.11B, 8.3A, B.3D, RPD.1C

Animal ID

How animals’ unique features help scientists tell individual creatures apart

JUSTIN LO/GETTY IMAGES

WILD LEMURS: Ring-tailed lemurs are critically endangered, with only about 2,400 left in the wild.

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT why scientists need to distinguish between animals of the same species.

On the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa, ring-tailed lemurs leap through the forest treetops, pausing to groom one another or munch on juicy fruits. After decades of being hunted and having their habitat destroyed, these animals are now in danger of becoming extinct. To help save the lemurs, scientists want to keep tabs on the few individuals that remain in the wild. But with their striped tails and furry, heart-shaped faces, these lemurs can be difficult to tell apart. 

Normally, to monitor a population of animals like lemurs, scientists would have to capture the animals one by one and use different methods to tag them. Researchers might strap colorful bands to animals’ legs, clip markers to their ears, outfit them with GPS collars, or implant tiny trackers under their skin. The tagging process can be stressful to animals. Wearing these devices can also impair their movements and make it hard to hide from predators. 

Some scientists are investigating the use of biometrics as a less disruptive way to identify animals. Biometrics are measurements of physical characteristics unique to individuals. Just as each person on Earth has a different fingerprint, other creatures have distinct features that set them apart from other members of their species. Read on to learn about four methods helping scientists keep track of who’s who in the animal world. 

Ring-tailed lemurs leap through the forest treetops on Madagascar, an island off Africa’s east coast. They stop to groom one another or eat juicy fruits. For decades, these animals have been hunted, and their habitat has been destroyed. Now they’re in danger of becoming extinct. Only a few are left in the wild. To help save the lemurs, scientists want to keep track of them. But their striped tails and furry, heart-shaped faces make these lemurs hard to tell apart.

To track a population of animals like lemurs, scientists normally have to capture them one by one. They use different methods to tag the animals. Researchers might place colorful bands around animals’ legs, markers on their ears, or tiny trackers under their skin. They might also fit the animals with GPS collars. The tagging process can be stressful to animals. Wearing these devices can also make it harder to move and to hide from predators. 

Some scientists are looking into a less stressful way to identify animals. They’d like to use biometrics. These measurements of physical features are unique to each animal. Each person on Earth has a different fingerprint. In the same way, other creatures have features that set them apart from others of their species. These features help scientists keep track of who’s who in the animal world. Read on to learn about four methods they’re using.

SAY “CHEESE!” 

CROUSE, D., JACOBS, R.L., RICHARDSON, Z. ET AL. LEMURFACEID: A FACE RECOGNITION SYSTEM TO FACILITATE INDIVIDUAL IDENTIFICATION OF LEMURS. BMC ZOOL 2, 2 (2017)

If you’ve ever unlocked your phone by looking into its camera or been automatically tagged in a photo, you’ve experienced facial-recognition technology. These computer programs recognize people based on their facial features. The same technology works on lemurs too—it can correctly identify individual animals about 98 percent of the time. 

Scientists have created a program called LemurFaceID. It detects variations in facial fur patterns in lemur photos. The software relies on machine learning to improve its ability to spot distinguishing characteristics over time. The more pictures LemurFaceID analyzes, the more accurate it becomes, says Anil Jain, a computer scientist at Michigan State University who helped create the program. 

Have you ever unlocked your phone by looking into its camera? Or have you been automatically tagged in a photo? That’s because of facial-recognition technology. These computer programs recognize people by their facial features. The same technology works on lemurs too. It can correctly identify an animal about 98 percent of the time.

Scientists have created a program called LemurFaceID. It finds differences in facial fur patterns in lemur photos. The software uses machine learning to get better at spotting differences in features over time. The more pictures LemurFaceID studies, the more accurate it becomes, says Anil Jain. He’s a computer scientist at Michigan State University, and he helped create the program.

NICOLAS DELOCHE/GODONG/ROBERTHARDING

BARCODE: Wildbook scans images of zebras to create a unique “StripeCode.”

STRIPE SPOTTER

From a distance, zebras look almost identical. But in reality, none of these animals have exactly the same black-and-white pattern. This fact led scientists to create Wildbook, a computer program that scans pictures of an animal’s distinctive markings, like a zebra’s stripes, to spot the slight differences that distinguish one animal from another. 

Wildbook works by zooming in on the tiny pixels that make up an image. It looks for places called “hot spots,” areas with large differences between the colors of pixels. The pattern of these hot spots is unique to each zebra. “They’re like fingerprints,” says Tanya Berger-Wolf, a computer scientist at the Ohio State University who co-founded the Wildbook project. 

Growing numbers of people and livestock have caused zebras’ grassland habitat to shrink. Identifying zebras can help scientists learn where herds go to find food. Then, researchers can take steps to protect those areas. 

From a distance, zebras look almost identical. But in reality, none of them have exactly the same black-and-white pattern. This fact led scientists to create Wildbook. It’s a computer program that scans pictures of an animal’s distinctive markings, like zebra’s stripes. The program spots slight differences between individual animals.

Wildbook works by zooming in on the tiny pixels that make up an image. It looks for places called “hot spots.” These areas have big differences between the colors of pixels. Each zebra has a uniqye pattern of hot spots. “They’re like fingerprints,” says Tanya Berger-Wolf. She’s a computer scientist at the Ohio State University who co-founded the Wildbook project.

Growing numbers of people and livestock have caused zebras’ grassland habitat to shrink. Identifying zebras can help scientists learn where herds go to find food. Then they can take steps to protect those areas.

COURTESY OF NEBRASKA EXTENSION IN LANCASTER COUNTY

SINGULAR SCHNOZ: Each cow’s nose has a unique pattern of bumps and ridges.

NOSE PATTERN

In 1921, farmers discovered they could tell the difference between cows by their noseprints. Tiny ridges on a cow’s nose form a pattern specific to that individual. But preparing these prints was a hassle—farmers had to cover each cow’s nose with ink and press it onto a piece of paper. Nearly 100 years later, scientists have found a much easier way to identify cows by their one-of-a-kind snouts. 

Researchers at Beni-Suef University in Egypt took digital photos of cows’ noses. Then they processed the pictures using an algorithm—a procedure a computer follows to perform a specific task. The program removed features from each image that didn’t contain useful information so that only a unique pattern of ridges remained. 

Using the high-tech noseprints, the software could correctly identify individual cows 96 percent of the time. Scientists hope that someday this technology will help ranchers distinguish cattle for breeding purposes, keep them up-to-date on vaccinations, and track illnesses that could spread through a herd. 

In 1921, farmers made an interesting find. They could tell cows apart by their noseprints. Tiny ridges on a cow’s nose form a pattern. It’s different for each cow. But making these prints was a hassle. Farmers had to cover each cow’s nose with ink and press it onto a piece of paper. Nearly 100 years later, scientists are still identifying cows by their one-of-a-kind noses. But they’ve found a much easier way. 

Researchers at Beni-Suef University in Egypt took digital photos of cows’ noses. Then they processed the pictures with a procedure called an algorithm. A computer follows an algorithm to perform a specific task. Some features in the images weren’t useful, so the program removed them. Only a unique pattern of ridges remained. 

The software used the high-tech noseprints to identify individual cows. It was correct 96 percent of the time. Scientists hope that ranchers will use this technology someday. It could help tell cattle apart for breeding, keeping them up-to-date on vaccinations, and tracking illnesses that could spread through a herd.

FLIP NICKLIN/MINDEN PICTURES (TOP LEFT TAIL); LUCIANO CANDISANI/MINDEN PICTURES (BOTTOM LEFT AND BOTTOM RIGHT TAIL); SHUTTERSTOCK.COM (TOP RIGHT TAIL)

THROUGH A NEW LENS: The unique markings, scratches, and scars on the underside of a humpback whale’s fluke, or tail, help scientists identify individual whales.

WHALE TALES

Studying animals that spend most of their time underwater is no easy feat. Luckily, whales surface periodically to breathe. That’s when scientists can snap photographs of the dorsal (back) fins on pilot and orca whales, the flukes (tails) of sperm and humpback whales, or the heads of right whales. These body parts have distinctive markings that can be used to tell individual whales apart. 

Researchers have compiled large databases of whale “photo IDs.” Everyday people, like whale watchers and tourists visiting coastal areas, contribute many of the images. Scientists use the images to estimate whales’ numbers and track their movements. If researchers notice a lack of recent images of an individual, it might indicate that the whale has died, helping researchers draw conclusions about mortality within a population. 

Photo IDs also allow researchers to learn more about whale pods, including how these family groups are organized and the relationships among their members. “Each individual whale has its own personality, history, and family,” says Hal Whitehead, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Canada. “Without being able to recognize the individuals, we would have very little concept of their lives.” 

Whales spend most of their time underwater, so studying them isn’t easy. Luckily, whales come up from time to time to breathe. That’s when scientists can snap photos. They look for the dorsal (back) fins on pilot and orca whales, the flukes (tails) of sperm and humpback whales, or the heads of right whales. These body parts have unique markings. They can help tell individual whales apart.

Researchers have created large databases of whale “photo-IDs.” Many of the images come from everyday people, like whale watchers and tourists in coastal areas. Scientists use the images to estimate whales’ numbers and track their movements. If there aren’t any recent images of an individual, the whale may have died. That helps researchers figure out death rates within a population.

Photo-IDs also tell researchers more about whale pods. They show how these family groups are organized and the relationships of their members. “Each individual whale has its own personality, history, and family,” says Hal Whitehead, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Canada. “Without being able to recognize the individuals, we would have very little concept of their lives.”  

COMMUNICATING INFORMATION: What are some drawbacks of using traditional methods to tag animals?

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