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How artificial intelligence is changing wildlife research

From analyzing animal photos to combing through YouTube, new software is harnessing data never before accessible to scientists.

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The ability of computers to automatically identify individual giraffes from their distinct coat patterns provides scientists with an affordable and efficient way to track population numbers.

San Diego Zoo’s Jenna Stacy-Dawes knows all too well the urgency of her research. Reticulated giraffes across the regions in northern Kenya that she studies have declined up to 70 percent in the past thirty years. Across Africa, giraffe numbers have shrunk by 40 percent in the same period, down to less than 100,000 individuals. Biologists are rushing to assess their numbers, movements, and preferred habitat to ensure protection of those areas. But the traditional way of counting giraffes using aerial surveys costs time and money, both of which are in short supply in the giraffe world.

Enter Wildbook, a software program developed by Portland-based conservation tech nonprofit Wild Me, which automatically identifies individual animals by their unique coat patterns or other hallmark features, such as fluke or ear outlines. With the help of Wildbook and the nonprofit Giraffe Conservation Foundation, Stacy-Dawes, a research coordinator at the zoo's Institute for Conservation Research, and her colleagues are able to blitz a giraffe population with photos over two days, upload the images and location data to their GiraffeSpotter database, and presto: a...

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