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Hubble to Map Whale Sharks

High above our planet, the Hubble Space Telescope has special software for analysing stars, now this technology is being turned back towards Earth to help marine research.

Try this: Print out a lower-case letter “o” in Times New Roman, 10-point font. Now hold the paper at arm’s length. Viewed from this distance, the area inside the “o” is approximately equal to the area observed in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, an image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Within that space - only one thirteen-millionth of the sky’s total area -Hubble revealed approximately 10,000 galaxies, each containing billions of stars.

Now, marine biologists are able to take advantage of some of Hubble's extraordinarily powerful analytic tools.

Despite being the largest fish in the ocean (capable of growing up to 40 feet long and weighing 20 tons), whale sharks are poorly understood. Marine biologists don’t have good data on their migration patterns, their global hotspots, breeding sites, or if they follow a seasonal food source.

It is principally this lack of knowledge that has prevented scientists from being able to develop conservation strategies to protect the animal from sliding further and further towards extinction.

Now a new citizen science project utilizes the Hubble’s technology to map photographed-whale sharks’ spotted patterns, of which no two are alike, and therefore effectively act like a fingerprint.

Hubble's algorithm forms the brain of a new photographic database of whale sharks, the largest ever assembled, that marine biologist Brad Norman of Western Australia’s Murdoch University used to create the Wildbook for Whale Sharks - a library of individually identified sharks that anyone, hobbyist scuba diver, amateur scientist, or professional biologist, can contribute to.

Now the library contains more than 76,000 sightings of 12,357 whale sharks. These gentle, filter-feeding giants are somewhere between Endangered and Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, and the database will go a long way towards ensuring that their feeding grounds and migration and breeding habitat can be found and preserved.

The spots just behind the whale shark’s fins are unique to each fish, so Norman and company can see where each one travels, breeds, and likes to stay.

As space and the ocean remain the final frontiers for scientific exploration, it seems only fitting that some of the tech within the Hubble Telescope should be used to help researchers identify an animal which, in the Malagasy language, is known as marokintana - which means “many stars.”

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