To effectively conserve marine wildlife, such as mantas and whale sharks, we must have a firm grasp on their global and regional ecology. Many population studies require scientists to identify individual animals and analyze their patterns of appearance over time and distance (a technique called mark-recapture).
Conveniently, mantas and whale sharks have natural spot patterns (‘fingerprints’) that do not change markedly over time and allow us to identify each individual using photographs. MMF researchers have been photographing marine wildlife for many years and launched Manta Matcher in 2012, the world’s first automated online manta ray database, enabling us to produce estimates for monitored regional populations. The Wildbook for Whale Sharks followed with over 35,000 sightings reported to date.
One of the great things about photographic identification, is that non-scientists can support these efforts as well. Receiving photographs from diver and snorkeler 'citizen scientists', we receive huge additional volunteer manpower and vastly increase our data volumes, allowing us to learn more about our focal species in shorter time-frames.
Dr Andrea Marshall, co-founder and principal scientist at the Marine Megafauna Foundation said:
“Initiatives like Manta Matcher reveal how much more we can achieve when we break down traditional barriers in science and invite people from all walks of life to participate in studies of our natural world. Collaborative wildlife studies will lead to hard hitting global conservation solutions.”
In 2014, a first study used photographs collected over a nine-year period by recreational divers and operators throughout Indonesia, to gain a better understanding of reef manta movement patterns, revealing that this species migrates between regional sanctuaries such as Nusa Penisa, the Gili Islands and Komodo National Park. This is a testament to the effectiveness of citizen science and opening the door for similar studies on migratory species across the world.
Through the use of this methodology it is possible to estimate population abundance, examine their life history and reproductive ecology, determine spatial and temporal movement patterns, identify localized habitat usage and study patterns of natural predation and body scarring. Photography can also provide information on population decline in threatened regional populations, which is essential in the development of effective conservation and management strategies. The more we know about a population, the better it can be protected.