Whales as Individuals: Teaching computers to analyze whale tails

A Humpback Wale
A Humpback Wale
Monday, August 10, 2015

Computer Engineering Professor Roberto Manduchi and Ph.D. student Diego Rodriguez have embarked on a whale-identification project – an example of how Baskin School of Engineering faculty and students are applying engineering to fields such as biology and ocean sciences.

The Challenge

Humpback whales can be individually identified by patterns on their tails (flukes) and by the overall shape of the fluke. Being able to identify individual whales helps us understand behavior, personality, conservation issues and population trends. But comparing thousands of individual fluke patterns is very difficult and time-intensive.

The project originated when Ted Cheeseman, a leader of international wildlife tours and an expert whale watcher, approached Manduchi with a simple question: Can computers can be taught to analyze thousands of photographs of whale tails to identify individual whales? Manduchi proposed the project to the students in his Computer Vision graduate course, and Rodriguez, in partnership with Computer Engineering student Dmitriy Rivkin, picked up the challenge. The project later became the topic of Rodriguez’s thesis; other collaborators include Cascadia Research Collective, Wild Me and Animal.us. According to Cheeseman, “UCSC Engineering’s applied computer science can be a game-changer to see clearly what is happening as whales recover from centuries of whaling but are threatened by ship traffic, fishing gear entanglements and ocean changes from global warming.”

The algorithms need your help

Computers are faster at sorting data, but humans are still much better at interpreting images and identifying key features such as fluke color and fluke tip location. With your help, the algorithm can be trained to correctly analyze the images. In essence, the algorithm “watches” you as you mark up images on the screen, and it learns from you how to match new whales to whales we've known for years.

Get involved!

Go to Whales as Individuals to learn more about the project and start identifying whales. Your participation will help provide better data on the current status of whale populations and behaviors. Whales as Individuals is a site maintained by Zooniverse, the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research.

Images by Ted Cheeseman