Much like human fingerprints, a zebra’s stripe pattern—such as this one on an endangered Grey’s zebra—varies from individual to individual. ©aecole2010, flickr

Identifying individuals within a group is vital for wildlife ecologists. Following a specific animal can help scientists understand the social interactions, migratory routes, preferred habitats, behaviors within certain settings, life spans and reproduction rates of various species.

But distinguishing one animal from another in a group is often difficult. Many methods have been devised, such as tagging, radio-collaring, banding and fin-notching. Unfortunately, these practices can cause injury to the animal and alter its behavior; and they are labor intensive for biologists, who need to capture and sedate unwilling subjects. In addition, artificial markers can malfunction, fade, be shed, rubbed or pulled off, rendering them useless.

That’s why a software program, called StripeSpotter is gaining a lot of attention. As use of this innovation becomes more prevalent in wildlife studies and the results become increasingly available to the public, will interest in conservation and empathy for wildlife grow?

Whales are often identified by the notches, nicks, tears and scars that accumulate through interaction with other cetaceans, predators and the environment. ©Eric Rock

Animals of a different stripe

With StripeSpotter, a computer program that is able to identify individual zebras from a single photograph, field ecologists simply upload a digital photo of a particular animal’s flank. StripeSpotter then analyzes the pixels and assigns a “stripecode.” When a future photo of a zebra is uploaded, it’s run against the stripecode. This highly accurate ID program is currently being used to build a database of plains and endangered Grevy’s zebras in Kenya.

StripeSpotter’s abilities, however, may soon be employed to track other species in popular African safari destinations. In the future, the program may help distinguish leopards, striped hyenas or even elephants by their wrinkles.

Part of StripeSpotter’s appeal is that photo identification is usually unobtrusive and generally results in little behavioral disturbance. But there are challenges. Obtaining useful photos for identification purposes isn’t always easy. Even after long hours of searching for animals, once they’re sighted, the right weather and lighting conditions must prevail in order to take workable photos of the subjects. Even if nature cooperates, circumstances may make it difficult to maneuver into position in order to obtain an angle for a photo that will enable easy identification and comparison. For example, getting the correct orientation of a zebra in the camera frame—both vertically and horizontally—can determine a photo’s serviceability. And deciding on the one individual to focus on and follow from among a large group of animals is often random.

In the wild, gorilla researchers try to take close-up photos of each animal’s face to help identify individuals. ©Eric Rock

It’s the individual that matters

StripeSpotter’s true value might lie not only in what it can do for science but in what it can do for conservation efforts. Psychologists have known for a long time that a personal, one-on-one connection triggers empathy; the feeling rarely flows to a group. In one well-known experiment, researchers studying generosity gave participants the opportunity to donate to a global, poverty-fighting organization. The first group of participants was told that food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children and given some additional information about how the need for donations was very strong.

A second group of participants was shown a photo of a seven-year-old, Malawian girl named Rokia, who is desperately poor. These participants were told that Rokia’s life would be changed for the better by their gifts. A third group was given a combination of the information that the two previous groups received. A fourth group was shown the photo of Rokia, informed about her situation and then given facts about another child, identified by name, and told that their donations would help this child, too. Interestingly, the group that was told only about Rokia (the second group) gave the most money.

Time and again, additional studies have offered similar results. In another generosity experiment, one group of people was told that a single child needed a lifesaving medical treatment costing $300,000 and was given the opportunity to contribute toward this fund. A second group was told that eight children needed a lifesaving treatment, and all of them would die unless $300,000 could be provided. More people opted to donate to the single child. This is the basis for why we’re so willing to help an individual, named victim, no matter the monetary cost, but turn a blind eye to the unknown, starving masses.

The death of a popular wolf in Yellowstone National Park caused outrage around the world. Yet appeals to protect all of Yellowstone’s wolves often fail to be heard. ©Paul Brown

Regarding wildlife, a recent example of this can be found among the wolves of Yellowstone. When a hunter killed Wolf No. 754 last fall, it was a shot heard ‘round the world. Many said it was like hearing about the death of a friend. It’s estimated that a half-million people were familiar with Wolf No. 754, since most of this radio-collared animal’s life played out in front of binoculars and spotting scopes inside a park visited by more than three million people annually. While the single animal’s death caused outrage, appeals to protect all of Yellowstone’s wolves struggle to be heard.           

Could software programs such as StripeSpotter be a boon for conservationists? If we start to see wild animals as individuals, will we spend more for their conservation and protection?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,