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Keywords:

  • Computer-aided pattern recognition;
  • conservation biology;
  • marine and fisheries management;
  • photographic identification

Abstract

For species which bear unique markings, such as natural spot patterning, field work has become increasingly more reliant on visual identification to recognize and catalog particular specimens or to monitor individuals within populations. While many species of interest exhibit characteristic markings that in principle allow individuals to be identified from photographs, scientists are often faced with the task of matching observations against databases of hundreds or thousands of images. We present a novel technique for automated identification of manta rays (Manta alfredi and Manta birostris) by means of a pattern-matching algorithm applied to images of their ventral surface area. Automated visual identification has recently been developed for several species. However, such methods are typically limited to animals that can be photographed above water, or whose markings exhibit high contrast and appear in regular constellations. While manta rays bear natural patterning across their ventral surface, these patterns vary greatly in their size, shape, contrast, and spatial distribution. Our method is the first to have proven successful at achieving high matching accuracies on a large corpus of manta ray images taken under challenging underwater conditions. Our method is based on automated extraction and matching of keypoint features using the Scale-Invariant Feature Transform (SIFT) algorithm. In order to cope with the considerable variation in quality of underwater photographs, we also incorporate preprocessing and image enhancement steps. Furthermore, we use a novel pattern-matching approach that results in better accuracy than the standard SIFT approach and other alternative methods. We present quantitative evaluation results on a data set of 720 images of manta rays taken under widely different conditions. We describe a novel automated pattern representation and matching method that can be used to identify individual manta rays from photographs. The method has been incorporated into a website (mantamatcher.org) which will serve as a global resource for ecological and conservation research. It will allow researchers to manage and track sightings data to establish important life-history parameters as well as determine other ecological data such as abundance, range, movement patterns, and structure of manta ray populations across the world.