Whale sharks are the largest known fish on our planet. They’re commonly found in open deep waters of the tropical oceans almost always in waters above 70 °F (21 °C). The whale shark holds many records for its size, and shockingly, it feeds almost exclusively on plankton and small fishes and poses no danger to humans. In fact, they have been spotted even playing and swimming with divers.
The first recorded sight of this amazing creature was in April 1828 near the shores of South Africa and since then, it has sparked scientific curiosity for understanding how it lives, reproduces, and behaves.
Unfortunately, whale sharks are highly valued in international markets. They are victims of the accidental capture of non-target species in fishing gear and consumption of their meat fins and oil. Whale shark tourism also presents a threat to the species as it can interrupt their feeding and sharks can be injured by boat propellers. These circumstances pushed experts to include this animal on the endangered species list.
Hubble Telescope Could Save Endangered Whale Sharks
This is when NASA comes in. For a few years now “The Wildbook for Whale Sharks” which is a visual database of whale sharks, uses Hubble Telescopes technology to track individuals from the species to further their protection. But how is that even possible?
Well, taking advantage of the fact the whale sharks’ skin has multiply grey or white spots that resemble stars in the night sky, and that patterns within those spots are unique to every individual of the species just as fingertips are to humans, scientists then determined that using NASA’s technology they could map the location of any whale shark and keep track of their movements throughout the oceans.
Not only marine biologists but any person who comes across a whale shark while at sea can photograph it and then submit the image to The Wildbook for Whale Sharks database. Then, using the star-matching algorithm first developed for Hubble Telescope and later modified to recognize the spots on whale sharks, they can identify the individual an recognize if it’s a known one or a new encounter.
In the two decades the program has existed, it has cataloged more than 43,000 encounters with more than 8,800 different whale sharks.
This adaptation of astronomical technology into marine biology has helped researchers to keep track of other endangered species that have unique and distinguishable patterns on their bodies. Hopefully, these practices will develop even further and will help save many species from extinction.