Which skink's which? Tracking life on Earth

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Principal research scientist Sai Ravela shares his group's statistical pattern recognition software with scientists in New Zealand studying endangered skinks.

Read this story at MIT News

Two researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are in Dunedin to look at native skinks.

Prof Sai Ravela and James Duyck, both of Boston, United States, developed a computer program which could assist Department of Conservation officers to identify and count grand and Otago skink populations in the Macraes conservation area.

Doc skink recovery programme manager Andy Hutcheon, of Dunedin, said the program, named Sloop, would increase the amount of time staff put into conservation by reducing time spent on computers.

In the past, Doc staff had to go through thousands of photographs manually to identify individual skinks so the population could be determined.

With Sloop, that job could be done by computer.

Sloop uses technology similar to facial recognition software to identify individual animals within a species.

Prof Ravela said the technology had been used on reptiles and amphibians in the United States, and as well as skinks it would be used on whale sharks and potentially dolphins.

"It would take one person working non-stop 24 hours a day for 15 years [to do what Sloop] takes about 29 days to do," Prof Ravela said.

Mr Hutcheon said he was reading a magazine about two years ago when he saw a picture of the software, and its introduction in skink conservation was a revelation.

"I knew in principle it could be done, but I didn't think we could afford it," he said.

When the skink recovery programme began, the two species were expected to be extinct in 30 to 40 years, he said.

Doc's conservation efforts had led to a population growth of about 30% every year, and this growth had presented its own problems.

"When we started we only had a small amount of photographs of a small amount of animals, which was manageable.

"When populations grow it presents a problem [of how to count them]. We became victims of our own success. But if the computer can do some of the work, it's great."

Prof Ravela and Mr Duyck will be here until Monday, at which point the program will be fully operational and run by Doc.