You have probably heard a lot about GPS collars and how they can be used to track the whereabouts of critters like Grevy’s zebra (you may recall that we adorned five lucky Grevy’s with GPS collars here on Mpala last June). But these collars are not the only means we have for seeing where animals go and who they hang out with.
Using photo identification software, we can recognize individual zebra from our collection of photos that date back to 2002. Just as a human fingerprint is a unique identifier, zebra stripes patterns are one-of-a-kind and can be recognized by a computer. The photos are stored in a database and ‘matched’ against any new pictures. That way we can tell whether we have a new photo of a zebra or if we’ve encountered one of our Mpala regulars.
Most of these zebra have been ‘captured’ by Hussein Mohamed, our field assistant, during his census loops covering the whole of Mpala. At the moment we have only combed through photographs taken here. However, we are hoping to soon expand the database to include photos taken in other areas, which ought to give us some idea of the larger scale movements of these awesome creatures at a fraction of the cost of a GPS collar.
While we are using this data mostly to investigate zebra movement, habitat preference and demographics, there are some fun consequences of having photographic series spanning multiple years. For example, we have been able to watch this male grow up. He was first seen on Mpala in 2004 as a fuzzy foal:
He was last seen in November 2009 as a fully grown bachelor. Perhaps we’ll see him acquire his own territory sometime in the near future.