Zebras have a natural barcode: Their stripes, which like human fingerprints vary from individual to individual. While biologists have long used these patterns to help pick out specific zebras in the wild, the process has never been simple—until now.
Last spring computer scientists and biologists teamed up to create StripeSpotter, a computer program that can identify individual zebras from a single photograph. The free, open source program is fast and easy to use. Field ecologists upload a digital photograph of an animal’s flank into StripeSpotter, which analyzes the pixels and assigns a “stripecode.”
When a future photo is uploaded, the program runs it against the stripecode. StripeSpotter, which is highly accuracy, is currently being used to build a zebra-code database for plains and Grevy's zebras in Kenya, but may soon be employed to track other species.
“We’re now getting more requests then we can possibly keep up with,” says Tanya Berger-Wolf, a University of Illinois at Chicago computer science professor and StripeSpotter co-developer. “People are asking us for help identifying everything from leopards to striped hyenas to elephants by their wrinkles.”
"Earning Their Stripes," by Nancy Averett, originally ran in the March-April 2012 issue.
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The Untouchable Wild: Are today's eco-trips really better for Africa's habitat than the shooting parties of Hemingway's era? We may have traded guns for cameras, but the essence of the safari is still the same: a hunt for the heart of the wild.
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