Zebras: Nature’s Barcodes

GPS tracking has been used to chart animal migratory patterns and other behaviors for years. This method of tracking, and the even more invasive method of implanting RFID chips, however, could be a thing of the past with increased technological breakthroughs in cameras and digital algorithms. Learning an animal’s location could now be as simple as snapping a photograph.

Identifying an animal based on physical features can be a tough task if the particular species doesn’t have a distinguishing characteristic. But if you were to imagine a perfect beast that fits the criterion of an easily identifyable trait, there’s probably one that comes immediately to mind: the zebra, nature’s barcode.

StripeSpotter, a system developed by the Computational Population Biology laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Equid Research and Conservation laboratory at Princeton University, uses portions of photographs of zebras and breaks them down into an isolated series of stripes, and then codes each pixel into true black and white. The resulting image represents a unique barcode-like pattern specific to the zebra. This ID is then stored in a database for future logs of the animal’s location.

The zebra scanner is not the first algorithm developed to identify animals in the field – there are also systems for tagging turtles, penguins and rhinos. This new system could also be applied to tigers and giraffes, or any animal with large markings in a small number of distinctive colours. The researchers will present their work at the International Conference on Multimedia Retrieval in Trento, Italy later this month.

So next time you see a zebra, take a picture. Then please immediately contact local authorities, because chances are there are some incredibly concerned zookeepers out there.

(Via Engadget and NewScientist) / (Image by Martin Pettitt, licensed under Creative Commons)

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