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Fluke Matcher uncovers world of knowledge about humpback whales


Brigid Veale
30 August 2010

Southern Cross University has launched a powerful new software program that will enable researchers from around the world to collate humpback whale photographic catalogues and gain new understanding of the marine mammal’s biology, ecology and behaviour.

Fluke Matcher was developed by a team of researchers including Daniel Burns and Professor Peter Harrison, from Southern Cross University’s Marine Ecology Research Centre, and Dr Eric Kniest, from the University of Newcastle and was funded by the Australian Government.

Dan Burns said the whale research group was excited to be releasing this powerful new technology to the research community.

“Researchers from Australia and around the world have been collecting hundreds and sometimes thousands of fluke photographs to identify individual humpback whales over many years. We recognise whales by their tail fluke pigmentation and scarring patterns,” Mr Burns said.

“This is a valuable collection of data but because of the difficulty we have had comparing images within different catalogues the potential of this resource has not been fully realised. Traditional methods have required substantial time, effort and expertise.

“With this computer-aided matching system our knowledge and understanding can grow significantly from here. At present different research groups tend to use different programs, but we think Fluke Matcher will take photo-identification analysis to new levels and get everybody onto the same page, allowing different groups to collaborate and match their data more efficiently in a standardised way.

“We have already received interest from researchers around Australia and all over the world. We will be conducting training in Australia soon, and I will be travelling to Auckland in a few weeks to train researchers from the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium, of which I'm also a member, in the use of the program. We also hope to collaborate with Northern Hemisphere scientists in the future.”

Mr Burns said that while computer-based matching systems had been developed for other marine species, including some cetaceans, Fluke Matcher was the first successful computerised system for humpback whales.

“The program uses various characteristics of humpback whale flukes to identify individuals including: black and white pigmentation distribution; angles and distances describing the shape of the fluke; and the location of distinctive features such as spots, lines and areas of damage,” Mr Burns said.

“When searching for a given fluke, the program then ranks all of the images in the database from the most likely to the least likely match for that fluke, and the operator then visually checks the ranked images to find any matches.

“Photo-identification is a valuable tool that allows whale researchers to determine various aspects of humpback whale biology and ecology, including estimates of abundance, migration patterns and interchange rates, and biological parameters such as calving and mortality rates.

“The collaborative aspect of this project is particularly important for improving our understanding of the movements and mixing of humpback whales on and between their feeding grounds in Antarctica and their breeding grounds in tropical and sub-tropical waters.

“This will help to determine the relationship between the endangered Oceania population and the faster-recovering east Australian population, the amount of mixing in the Antarctic and improve the accuracy of pre-whaling population estimates and recovery assessments."

Professor Peter Harrison, director of the Marine Ecology Research Centre, said this was a significant development which would lead to greater international collaboration.

“This revolutionary tool will enable a much more efficient and collaborative use of data that is collected from around the world and will lead to improved management and conservation outcomes,” Professor Harrison said.

Photo: The new Fluke Matcher computer program will enable researchers from around the world to collate humpback whale photographic catalogues.